Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 4, 2007
POLITICS: The 2008 Field: A Taxonomy
With the post-Labor Day entry of Fred Thompson into the race, we have almost certainly reached the point of no return for the 2008 presidential race. It's already late for Fred to get in, but at least he's been raising money, hiring staff and making plans; it's nearly impossible for anybody who hasn't done all that to get in after him (Newt Gingrich being the only remaining potential candidate who has even hinted at doing so, other than third party possibility Mike Bloomberg, who doesn't need to run a primary campaign). As such, it is possible to classify the candidates in each field. There are, in the main, six general types of presidential primary contender, and we have representatives of each type in this year's two fields. While not every candidate fits every characteristic of a type, they can generally fit most of the definition for a particular type.
Politics, it has been said, is show business for ugly people. In a similar vein, when you refer to a politician as a "Rock Star," it's not exactly the same as being Elvis in '55 or Lennon and McCartney in '64 in terms of excitement.
There are a few defining characteristics of a Rock Star candidate, all of which boil down to the fact that a Rock Star candidate, unlike other types of candidates, is a known quantity to much of the electorate (at least, to the people who vote, especially primary voters, not the sort of people who don't know who the current Vice President is). Thus, we can generalize:
*A Rock Star candidate can generate his or her own press without having to pay for it simply by announcing a stand on an issue or appearing in a locality.
While being a Rock Star candidate is no guarantee of a successful or even respectable showing in a presidential primary, it's undoubtedly a huge advantage, and it's very rare to have more than one Rock Star in a party's field. Sitting Vice Presidents are almost always Rock Stars, even when they are terribly unexciting people, as are past presidential nominees.
Past Rock Star candidates to win their party's nomination include Reagan in 1980, Nixon in 1960 and 1968, Eisenhower in 1952, George HW Bush in 1988, Dewey in 1948, Gore in 2000, and Stevenson in 1956 (if you are keeping score, half of those won the general election).
Other than prior presidents, there are at least 7 Rock Stars sitting this race out - Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Newt Gingrich and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is constitutionally barred from holding the job) on the GOP side, Al Gore and Howard Dean on the Democratic side. Merely to list these names should be proof that being a Rock Star is no guarantee of success. There are others who are still rock star types but are recognized as being past their primes as presidential contenders (Ted Kennedy, Colin Powell) or are no longer Rock Stars (Dan Quayle).
In the current field, the Republicans have what ought to be an embarrassing luxury: two Rock Star candidates running simultaneously, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Rudy's been a national figure since the mid-90s, and became a globally known one after September 11; McCain, of course, won national renown as a POW in the early 70s and became a political brand name in the 2000 primary campaign. But McCain's campaign has all but expired due to a combination of his lack of money, age, and accumulation of enemies among the party's base, and Rudy's refusal to distance himself from his socially liberal record continues to be a huge vulnerability, so instead the field continues to have room for other serious contenders.
By contrast, the Democrats have just one true Rock Star candidate, Hillary Clinton. Hillary is perhaps the most polarizing figure in national politics, with the arguable exception of her husband and George W. Bush - the winners, of course, of the last four elections (assuming that Bush completes his term, not only will we have the first consecutive two-complete-term presidencies since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe presided during the collapse of the opposition Federalist party, we will have the first ever consecutive two-complete-term presidencies of different parties). Of course, neither Clinton nor Bush started off with such astronomically high numbers of sworn enemies.
For all of Hillary's built-in weaknesses, it's hard to see how she loses in the primaries. She has nearly unlimited financial resources and name recognition, she doesn't make mistakes, and she isn't anathema to any faction in the party besides the hard-core anti-war lobby, which proved in the Dean '04 and Lamont '06 campaigns that it can't close the deal even in liberal electorates all by itself. Sure, Hillary is a preachy, nagging schoolmarm, but don't forget quite how many preachy, nagging schoolmarms vote in Democratic primaries. Scroll down the RCP Poll Index for the past 10 months and you will see that every single poll has one thing in common: Hillary at the top.
The Perennial Contender candidate is not as well-known to the general public as the rock star candidate, but is a well-known quantity among political observers, has usually run a less successful campaign in the past or been short-listed as a vice presidential choice. The rationale for the Perennial Contender's campaign is that his moment has arrived. Perennial contenders, however, especially Senators, have a fairly dismal general election track record.
Past examples of Perennial Contender candidates who won the nomination include Adlai Stevenson in 1952, Mondale in 1984, Clinton in 1992 (recall that he'd been in office over a decade and given the keynote at the 88 convention), Dole in 1996, and Kerry in 2004; I'd also list Hubert Humphery here rather than as a Rock Star - nobody really had Humphery on their radar until March of '68 after LBJ pulled out, and he basically had the nomination fall into his lap as the safe choice after the real Rock Star in the race, RFK, was assassinated.
The Perennial Contender class has until recently been the weak link in the GOP field; other than McCain, who appears past his prime, there wasn't anyone whose "turn" it seemed logically to be, no gray-headed default option from the center of the party's ideological spectrum. And that's precisely where Fred Thompson came in.
Fred generates a fair amount of glamor and excitement for his Hollywood years and his commanding physical presence (towering height, deep voice, general air of gravitas), but I would not put him in the "Rock Star" class - his face and voice may be familiar to the general public, but his name really isn't, much less a concrete sense of who he is, where he comes from and what he stands for. But he is, at the same time, too familiar a face inside the Beltway (from Watergate and from being first elected 13 years ago) and on TV to be a Phenom candidate, as described below; he was even briefly rumored as a 2000 candidate. I'll have more on Fred another day.
On the Democratic side, with Wes Clark and Evan Bayh sitting out, among others, there are three Perennial Contender candidates in the field: John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden.
Edwards is more a perennial candidate, having not stopped campaigning since 2004 and thus running on the same flimsy resume of a single undistinguished and largely absentee term in the Senate in a state he would have no chance of winning in a general election.
Richardson, a perennial VP short-lister, governor, Congressman, ambassador and Cabinet Secretary, is a classic Perennial Contender type, all resume and retail charm but dry as dust on TV. He's made some periodic noise in the polls, pulling around 10% and a fourth place finish in Iowa and New Hampshire, but seems unlikely to do more than hang around.
Biden, I've often compared to the Senatorial equivalent of a boy raised by wolves - having spent nearly his whole adult life surrounded entirely by Senators (he was elected at 29), he's hilariously out of his element outside the Senate. Like Richardson, despite his windy, gaffe-a-minute speeches, Biden's combination of long experience, especially in foreign policy, and gregarious persona might make him a real contender in a weaker field, but this year he doesn't stand a chance.
The Phenoom candidate is a candidate who has fairly thin experience and accomplishment, but has for one reason or another been mentioned as presidential timber essentially since entering public office, and thus rockets to national prominence with astonishing rapidity, often less than 8 years after first surfacing on the political radar. John Edwards was such a candidate last time around; successful Phenom candidates include John F. Kennedy in 1960 and George W. Bush in 2000.
There are two Phenom candidates in the current field - Mitt Romney and Barack Obama - Romney was first elected to office in 2002, Obama first rose out of the state legislature in 2004. Obama's lack of a firmly established policy profile and the shortness of his time in the spotlight precludes him from being classed as a Rock Star candidate, though he rapidly approaches that status. Green as he is, I'd give Obama a good shot at the nomination if Hillary didn't already have it in a headlock.
I'll also come back to discuss Romney more at a later date, but the short summary is that I have mainly regarded Romney less as a politician of conviction than as a savvy businessman pursuing an underserved market in running as the conservative in the field; the entry of Fred Thompson into the race upsets that strategy, but then a smart venture capitalist like Romney always bets on the successful early entrant to attract competition.
The Dark Horse candidate is generally a candidate with no obvious reason why he can't win other than his obscurity. Dark Horses are almost always governors, successful and sometimes charismatic executives who haven't stepped on the toes of any of their party's significant factions. For the most part, a Dark Horse can only capture a weak field, though a Dark Horse who picks the right issues can suddenly steal a march, at least temporarily after the fashion of Dean in 2004. Past Dark Horse nominees include Jimmy Carter and Mike Dukakis.
Most of the potential Dark Horses, sensing a strong field, chose to sit out this cycle - Pawlenty, Sanford, Barbour, Rendell, Bredesen, Easley (I class Mark Warner more as the phenom type). That leaves two, both on the GOP side - Mike Huckabee, a charismatic and experienced socially conservative governor who has impressed many at the debates, and Duncan Hunter, a hawk on national defense and immigration (and also a solid social conservative) and Vietnam vet who has spent decades in the House, including as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
The GOP field, divided as it is, doesn't quite seem ripe for a Dark Horse insurgency (note that Carter and Dukakis were both Democrats), plus Huckabee in particular has never been a favorite of economic conservatives (in a sense he's the anti-Rudy, conservative only on social issues). Both men may yet position themselves for a VP nomination or Cabinet post, although as I and others have argued, Huckabee would do the party much more good running for the Senate in 2008.
Agenda Setters are the easiest kind of candidate to peg - they are often quite unpretentious about their dim chances of winning the nomination, but they are nonetheless a significant part of the storyline because their real goal is to influence the direction of the party and the ultimate nominee. Steve Forbes, for example, was highly successful in influencing George W. Bush's economic agenda after having been a force in Bob Dole's 1996 promise of a 15% tax cut - the fact that Bush moved to suck the oxygen out of Forbes' 2000 effort to reprise his 1996 campaign meant that Forbes was more, rather than less, successful in 2000.
Agenda-Setters, of course, are inevitably disasters as the nominee, McGovern and Goldwater being the exemplars. Third party campaigns like Ross Perot's, by contrast, are more successful if they aim to set the agenda.
The Agenda Setters in this year's fields? Sam Brownback for the social/cultural/religious conservatives, Tom Tancredo for the immigration restrictionists, Ron Paul for the libertarians, and Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich for the far left anti-war movement. The anti-warriors, of course, already have a lot of influence, while Paul and Tancredo aren't getting any traction thus far outside of their base camps; only Brownback looks likely to get up enough head of steam to exert some gravitational pull on the nominee, and even that has thus far been an uphill battle. Had Chuck Hagel run it would have been as an Agenda Setter; his absence leaves Paul to carry the anti-war standard, such as it is, in the GOP.
Sixth Sense Candidates
So-called because they're the only guy in the room who doesn't know they are dead. The only candidate I can recall to claim this status and then revive his way to the nomination was Kerry (in late 2003, Mickey Kaus held a contest to come up with ways for Kerry to withdraw without humiliating himself) - Clinton came close in February 1992, but nobody ever really landed a death blow, and Clinton wasn't so much a lifeless campaign as one dogged by scandal. More often, such campaigns are dead from Day One. The defining characteristic of a Sixth Sense campaign is that nobody can figure out the rationale for why the candidate is running or who he is supposed to appeal to.
Many such illusions have been popped in the past year (e.g., Frist, Pataki, Kerry, Gilmore, Tommy Thompson); remaining Sixth Sense campaigns include Chris Dodd and the quixotic John Cox.
Where Do We Go From Here?
What is particularly unusual in this year's Republican race is that ideology has really trumped classification. In an ordinary race, much of the spring and summer of the year before the primaries is spent with candidates in each classification running mainly against the others of their class, trying to secure sole possession of their particular role in the field. Instead, what we have seen is mainly a series of feeding frenzies, with Mitt Romney often at the center. Regardless of where the attacks actually came from, this made eminent sense based on the positioning of the candidates - everyone to his right saw the frontrunners as being vulnerable from the right, and the frontrunners (Giuliani and McCain) wanted to keep those challenges weak and divided; also, Rudy had to recognize from the beginning that Romney was the candidate most likely to threaten Giuliani's status as the guy with executive experience.
The dynamic should persist now that Fred is in the race, and doubly so with McCain fading - while Rudy's ideal endgame is a mano-a-mano showdown with a manifestly unelectable social conservative with no executive experience (i.e., Sam Brownback), his intermediate game has to be to keep the center of the party from coalescing around either Romney or Fred until it is too late. Fred, by contrast, has a huge vested interest in pouncing on those voters who just didn't buy Romney as a true conservative.
A more interesting question to turn to later is the dynamics of Romney's strong position on the calendar given his heavy investment in Iowa and New Hampshire and local-boy status in New Hampshire.