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Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Race

by MICHAEL BRENNER

The 2013-2016 presidential election season is now underway after the traditional post-inauguration break. The contest is expected to be fiercely contested by an unprecedented number of aspirants. So many in fact that the run for the roses may require an auxiliary starting gate for the first time in the nation’s history. Eagerly chomping at the bit, the would-be candidates are inspired by the surprise outcome of recent races won by dark horses with scant track records. The American Dream that anyone can become President has been realized – literally.

Democrats Top Three

HILLARY is the early favorite. She has some obvious strengths. Hillary has been around the track at least once before while twice was there as a pacifier pony, has been a (sometimes) stable mate of a proven winner, enjoys considerable crowd appeal – especially among the distaff set, has demonstrated the necessary endurance, and has a driving ambition to stand in the winner’s circle draped with flowers. That keen competitive edge often reveals itself in the employment of ruthless tactics that, in some circles, have opened her to charges of dirty play. On balance, that factor should figure on the plus side of the ledger in today’s anything goes climate. An additional strength is a deep bench of supporters, donors and well-wishers who share her ambitions and dedication to self-service. In addition, she now can claim that her peripatetic travels to 110 countries, including the Cook Islands, makes her uniquely qualified to handle 3 A.M. phone calls as her biological clock doesn’t know night from day.

Weaknesses:  Concern that Hillary may be getting long in the tooth – prone to injury, her peak seasons behind her, and her diminished nimbleness that could leave her boxed in along the rail . Her much touted record as Secretary of State is tarnished by the serial failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East and devoid of tangible accomplishment.

Joker: Will Barack Obama throw his inconsiderable weight behind her – that’s the big unknown. Obama evidently does feel an obligation to the Clintons, for reasons no one can decipher. Whispers around Georgetown suggest that he is grateful for what she did back in 2008 when confronted with the question: “Do you believe that Mr Obama is a Muslim?” Her unhesitating answer, ”not as far as I know” helped to put the matter to rest at a time when the Obama camp feared Hillary’s answer would be: “not as far as I know; but anyway, there is no reason why Americans, in principle, should not accept as President a man who in good faith prays 5 times a day with his forehead touching the ground and whose pals call him Hajji.” The other joker in the pack is Bill. His irresistible impulse to grab the limelight could further solidify support for Hillary among her core constituency. On the other hand, the unpredictable independent vote may find the prospect of a sequel to past White House melodramas a retro form of comic entertainment.

Joe BIDEN, or ‘Lock Jaw’ as he is affectionately known to friends and admirers, is Hillary’s most formidable rival. As the incumbent Vice-President, he wears the invisible mantle of legitimate successor to Obama. He sits in all the big meetings, goes in and out of the Oval Office, visits foreign capitals with an entourage of 224 whose upkeep for a night at a Paris hotel tops half a million, and keeps his celebrity portrait in the public gaze. Biden is a seasoned veteran who ran the course on several occasions dating back to the last century. He could appeal to the Obama loyalists whose belief that something has changed in Washington is unshaken by the greatest policy continuity across Republican and Democratic administrations since Harrison/Cleveland II. A hybrid Blue Dog Yellow Dog mix, Biden will try to hog the Democratic middle-of-the-road where one finds the bundlers, the pundits and no small number of dead armadillos.

Weaknesses: A stale quality only partially offset by a hyper active style and a high voltage smile. Biden’s stock of platitudes is wearing thin after long exposure. It’s a liability made all the heavier by the fact that the same words and phrases have been uttered non-stop by President Obama and Hillary for years. But spoken in Obama’s portentous tones, they can pass muster – if barely. Spoken by Hillary, they profit from a gender inflection. Biden may have to reinvent himself to give Hillary a run for her donors’ money. There surely are no convictions or character traits that would stand in the way of his trying to do so. The selection of public persona is rich and there is an abundance of advisers and job seekers willing to help. The trick will be to pick the right one:  grizzled veteran fighting one last campaign to do what’s right for America; champion of the “middle class” who has discovered his working class roots – once again; or, simply, the plain vanilla alternative to the unbearable risk that the Clintons may lodge in the White House for four more years.

Andrew CUOMO doubtless will throw his figurative hat into the presidential ring – unlike his father who in 1992 had a private jet fueled and ready to go at the Albany airport before deciding at the last moment that sleeping in strange beds for a year wasn’t his thing. Andrew is not a Hamlet – he knows what he wants and will pull out all stops in going after it. That was evident in early 2010 when he announced publicly that his aggressive pursuit of Wall Street malefactors, as Attorney general of New York, was reaching the end – a few months before declaring himself a gubernatorial candidate. His campaign was well funded by members of the financial community. Cuomo will stress his Executive experience which includes a stint as Secretary of Housing under Bill Clinton. That is the one resume item that differentiates him from Hillary and Biden whose may claim to have been high level policymakers but never managed much of anything. It also allows Cuomo to assume the outsider role in the stylized Kabuki that is American politics. This is at a time when Americans’ disillusionment with “Washington” is at an all-time high.

Weaknesses: Cuomo’s self-portrayal as the can-do executive free of Washington’s insider entanglements is counterbalanced by his silence on the great issues domestic and foreign that are wracking the Republic. This discretion has kept him out of the crossfire but it leaves him without a core constituency or a cadre of devout followers. He is no one’s “great white hope.” Cuomo may opt to become the standard bearer of progressives simply because that is the niche along the spectrum that is unoccupied. Dusting off his credentials as one-time scourge of Wall Street might help; and his lack of conviction about most things would facilitate such a calculated move.  So, too, could memories of father’s genuine identification with the common man before retiring prematurely from public discourse to devote himself to enrichment. At the same time, it would open him to charges of opportunism. In the end, he will have to slog it out with Hillary and Biden without the one’s well crafted celebrity or the other’s ‘incumbency’ advantages. That means lots of money, which also means tempering any revival of his youthful reformist tendencies.

Sure Runners & Sure Losers: Al Sharpton

Wild Card: Elizabeth WARREN

Republicans Top 2

Paul RYAN: is the early line favorite on the GOP side. By virtue of having made the circuit in an auxiliary role last time, he acquires a bit of that Presidential timber image. He’s done the debates with the lectern and Stars-and-Stripes thing, he has made the necessary contacts with the money-bag types, the media have promoted him to benefit-of-the-doubt status, and the name recognition is high – thanks in part to the millions who think that he is the Jack Ryan of novelist fame who has made the jump from the Navy to politics. In addition, he is lionized among the frenzied Tea Party crowd who admire his gumption, his dogmatism and his instinctive facility in subordinating reality to fantasy. Moreover, he can stand up to the Liberal Establishment because he can talk in numbers. The fact that they don’t add up is another endearing trait.

Weaknesses: Ryan still looks like a kid with something of the hustler in him. Neither youth nor a penchant for sharp-dealing is itself frowned upon by American voters. They do, though, prefer to have it masked by a more serious demeanor that conveys gravity and sobriety. This clearly did not stop 60 million voters from being comfortable with putting Sarah Palin within a couple of melanoma cells of the Oval office. Then again, Ryan doesn’t have her legs – nor is either Hillary or Biden or Cuomo black. A perhaps more formidable liability is that Ryan’s positions on most domestic issues are out of synch with the attitudes of about 60-70% of the electorate. That arithmetic will work against any conceivable Republican candidate – assuming that this time around the Democrats bother to point it out. Ryan, though, is the poster boy for Republican reaction.

Chris CHRISTIE: the big man from New Jersey has an outsized appetite for everything – power foremost among them (since he has gotten his stomach stitched). His natural impulse is to holler, a trait that goes down well with the high octane elements that now dominate the Republican Party. Decibel readings correspond to passion, to outrage, to fighting spirit, to courage – all of which are dear to Republican hearts. Blood is what they want and blood is what Christie promises them – even if the wounds he inflicts are only verbal.  Furthermore, his electoral successes in a Northeastern state suggest that he might be able to tear loose a few much needed electoral votes from what has become a solid Democratic bloc. His supposed appeal to working class Reagan Democrats tempts the Republican movers and shakers. Like Cuomo, he will foster the image of a down-to-earth Washington outsider with a can-do record – while reaching his hand across the Hudson.

Weaknesses: Christie has a couple of serious liabilities. To the right, he has turned off some fans by two acts of betrayal. One, he greeted Obama personally when the President visited in the wake of the Sandy catastrophe and, horror of horrors, thanked the Socialist closet Muslim Obama for his assistance. Two, he has shown signs of going soft on gay marriage. Whether these twin sins will sink his candidacy will depend on how they are judged: mortal or just venal. Doubtless, Christie will manage to get a clutch of Archbishops and a Cardinal or two to vouch for him. It is by no means certain, though, that Catholic Church authorities can quell the unease felt by the largely Evangelical religious constituency that is the heart of the Tea Party. Christie’s other liability is his impulse to shoot from the hip – often with an AK-47. At times, his foot gets in the way. This may help him bond with the Tea Party militants but could hurt him in places where violence is not prized as a presidential asset.

Sure Losers: Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, Paul(s)

Wild Card: Jeb BUSH

OCTOBER SURPRISE

President Obama declines to endorse a candidate. “I have devoted my eight years in office to binding up the wounds of partisan conflict in the belief that we are first and foremost Americans. Not Republicans and Democrats, not conservatives and liberals, not Red states and Blue states. The people of this country want us to pull together in facing the great challenges of the 21st century rather than to engage in endless partisan bickering. I believe that we have made progress in moving to overcome our differences. The task is not completed but we have set a solid foundation on which future leaders and future generations of Americans can build – going forward. After much reflection, I have reached the conclusion that most valuable parting gift, for the sake of this noble cause, that I can leave my fellow countrymen is to refrain from endorsing either party’s candidate. God bless you; God bless the truly UNITED States of America”

WINNER: WARREN over Bush by 50.45 vs 49.55 in the popular vote and 270 – 268  in the Electoral College. Warren is President (the Supreme Court permitting)

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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