Cutting the Presidential Timber

It is that time in the pre-election season. The last thing most Americans want to do now is think about who they will pull the lever for in November 2008. However, serious candidates are already moving their pieces. If Pawn to King 4 is a traditional opening move in chess, forming a presidential exploratory committee is a candidate’s first public move into the complex dynamics of running for president.

Since most candidates come right out and say they are running for President, I am a bit puzzled why they claim their campaigns are “exploratory”. Most have done their homework and know that an exploratory committee is the end result of a long process, not the beginning of one. Most of these campaigns will be felled long before the Iowa Caucus. Many will find that no matter how large their ambitions, they simply will not be able to find enough money to run a competitive campaign. The more sober ones will realize early that they simply do not have the right mixture of personal magnetism and mojo to win, then withdraw. Even this early in the campaign it is easy to see who these will be. One will be Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. In addition, you can bet that Chris Dodd and Joe Biden will be among the first to hang it up. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, although he claims he is running to win, realizes his candidacy is about trying to raise issues that appeal to the ultra left wing of the Democratic Party. He knows he has no chance but he does enjoy his brief moments of in the spotlight that comes from being a candidate.

Timing your presidential announcement is always something of a crapshoot. It is never a good idea to be the first to declare. It is the kiss of death. That is why Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has no chance. He hopes, like all candidates first out the gate, to gather some name recognition. It is a rule that the first candidate to declare must be someone 99 out of 100 people will say, “Who the heck is he?” It is far better, if you are serious about running for president, to be wealthy enough and have time enough to spend years acting like you are running for president for years before declaring yourself. This has been former North Carolina Senator John Edwards’s strategy. At this point, he probably knows Iowa better than most of its residents. However, his tenacity has paid off. Most early polls of Iowa show him in the lead.

At some point, you must take the presidential plunge. Hillary Clinton took the plunge the other weekend. In her announcement (placed first on her web site, just to show that she is Netroots friendly) she invited Americans to have a dialog with her about their issues and concerns. I am sure I am one of the vast majority of Americans who, when they heard her say this, also heard their bullshit meters clanging. Nonetheless, try to take her up on it. Why not send her an email earnestly telling her your opinions on issues of the day. I am sure in her voluminous spare time she will give you a thoughtful reply.

Hah! Not a chance! Instead, here is how Hillary Clinton is probably spending her days. First, there is probably an hour of exercise somewhere. She may be pushing 60, but you are not elected president by looking flabby. Then there is likely another hour at the hairdresser, blow drying the hair and having her makeup applied. Then it is off to briefings and committee meetings, that is when Congress is actually in session. Otherwise, she is probably whispering to her chief of staff or working her Blackberry during those committee hearings. Perhaps because she is a very special FOB (Friend of Bill) she is not spending her evenings on the phone grubbing money. In her voluminous spare time, rather than opening a dialog with you, she is flying here and flying there in an attempt to be seen to be doing the right things. Right now she is busy being seen in Iowa, where the first caucus will be held. She will likely also be found at rubber chicken dinners at American Legion Halls across New Hampshire. When not engaged in these time consuming and expected activities of a presidential candidate, there are the numerous interviews with the press. This is how she really connects with voters. The conversation is one way and you only get to listen. If she reads a newspaper, it is probably when she is flying somewhere. Do not be naïve enough to think that she actually is busy reading editorials and in depth articles about the issues of the day. She has staff to do that for her. She gets bullet points.

In short, most presidential campaigns are about giving the appearance of connecting with the voters without actually following through. Those she connects with are likely to be people who already support or admire her in the first place, so their opinions are hardly a representative sample. If you take the time to attend one of her events (not that any are likely to be near you, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire), expect to listen and not speak. Perhaps if you leave a comment on her website’s blog an earnest staff member will take the time to reply. Do not hold your breath.

I do not know why but so far, Hillary’s candidacy has me under whelmed. This is a shame, because she is an articulate and principled woman who would be one of the better-qualified women in the country to be president, in spite of her long association with Bill. She certainly knows what the job is like, having already lived in the White House. Still, her candidacy to date feels stage-managed and slick, a product more of Madison Avenue than from genuine passion and interest. One gets the feeling that Bill is helping her furiously triangulate. It is hard to pin her down on very much at the moment. She is upset with the War on Iraq, but not upset enough (yet) to renounce her vote for the war. She wants to have it both ways. She remains very articulate but is not passionate.

If you want passion with a touch of charisma, John Edwards is likely your candidate of the moment. At least he comes across that way, and he projects the right combination of passion and eloquence on the campaign trail to both connect with voters and appear to have a comprehensive vision forward for the country. In addition, unless he is a remarkable faker, he has convinced me that he cares for the average person. It is unlikely you will find Hillary Clinton rehabilitating housing in New Orleans.

Some potential candidates are making motions like they will not run while not absolutely excluding it altogether. Al Gore comes to mind. It is a shame that he seems uninterested in running, but he may be playing his cards very close to his chest. He now has the conviction and gravitas he did not show in the 2000 campaign. With his tenacity and eloquence educating the world on global warming, he has proven himself as being a leader well ahead of the curve. Moreover, among only a handful of candidates he can claim he was right all along. He spoke out against the Iraq War Resolution at the time Congress was considering it. At some personal risk, he endorsed Howard Dean early in the 2004 presidential campaign. Whether Howard was more electable than John Kerry may not matter. What matters is that Dean was right about Iraq and correct on the issues then that matter so much now. If you have ever heard his speak lately on politics, you know he can speak with a special eloquences. The old stage managed Al is gone.

Others who should run are also being mum. As I survey the field, Al Gore would be my first choice. Lacking him, Wesley Clark strikes me as the person with the necessary combination of military experience and common sense to be an effective president at this perilous time. Bill Richardson, another dark horse who is also unlikely to get far in his campaign, would be another fine choice. Like Clark, he has the credentials in the foreign policy area including a stint as U.S. Representative to the United Nations. Richardson has a unique ability to get along with people than no one else can stand. He counts as a personal friend none other than North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il. Richardson has also traveled to Darfur to speak to the leaders on all sides of the conflict, in a personal attempt to ease the crisis there. He has a combination of the pragmatic experience of running a state along with the right mixture of federal foreign policy experience.

To me Barack Obama, who also recently jumped into the race, remains an unproven commodity. He has certain advantages including eloquence, youth, and handsomeness. (The latter is an unspoken requirement for presidential candidates.) Yet his resume is thin. It would be exciting to have an African American or a woman as president, just for the novelty. Nonetheless, the challenging times we live in require someone not just with the eloquence but also with the skills and common sense to deal with a myriad of complex issues that challenge us. I suspect Obama needs another dozen years proving himself in the Senate before he will truly be qualified to say he is presidential timber. Americans though often prefer style over substance, so he may well run away with the nomination.

I will not speak too much of the declared Republican candidates. I do this frankly because I don’t think a Republican candidate will have a serious chance of winning in 2008. This is because President Bush, probably unknowingly, is putting a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. There is no candidate out there except possibly Chuck Hagel or Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that would not be tarred by association with him. Right now Rudy Giuliani polls best, but this is among Americans at large, not among Republicans. Nonetheless, his star should dim significantly once more Americans are aware of his seamier side. It is not every candidate who will openly cheat on his wife while being mayor of America’s largest city. In addition, he is likely way too gay friendly to win the Republican nomination. The Republican conservative Christian segment is still too large.

The only thing certain in this presidential race today is that too much remains uncertain this far out. Surprises come with the territory. Expect a scandal or two to surface. Expect candidates who are perceived to have the edge now to flounder, and a candidate or two in the third tier to move up a notch or two. There may be some drama with an unexpected late run, perhaps from Al Gore. Moreover, expect that national and international events between now and the conventions will also affect voter’s perceptions.

My sense though is that neither Barak Obama nor Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. Those perceived at the moment to be first tier candidates will likely flounder. I do not know whom the Democrats will eventually nominate, but I suspect it will be someone that will disappoint those who place faith in conventional wisdom. For us political junkies, it will still be a lot of fun updating our scorecards.

Update 2/23/07. Well, that didn’t take long. Tom Vilsack is out of the race. I did say it was a bad omen to announce first for president, right?

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