Mitt Bows Out, And Drivers Get Ready For Hillary

On Friday, Mitt Romney told his supporters that he won’t be running for President in 2016.  Although he’s clearly been bitten by the presidential bug — he’s run for the nation’s highest office the last two elections — Romney said he wanted to make way for the “next generation of Republican leaders.”

I’m not sure precisely who is in the “next generation of Republican leaders” — it seems like there are about 20 names of current and former Governors and Senators being thrown around as likely candidates — but I think Romney made the right decision.  You can only run for President so many times before you become a bit of a joke, like Harold Stassen or Hubert Humphrey were when I was a kid.  Two runs is about the maximum, and if you’re going to bump up against that rule of thumb you may as well exit stage right with some class.  Romney did that with his statement on Friday; good luck to him and his family.

RIMG_4712omney was leading in preference polls, so his exit gives the Republican race a wide-open feel. What about the Democrat frontrunner?  Hillary Clinton has been laying low recently, with few appearances on her calendar.  Some say she wants to let Republicans fight and then emerge in the spring as a fresh face; others wonder if she isn’t brushing up on her political skills after a rocky book-signing tour.

If Hillary Clinton is in fact going to run, maybe she it would be a good idea for her to give some careful thought to messaging.  Yesterday I saw the bumper sticker pictured above at a stop light at a Columbus intersection, and it was a clinker for me.  Why should voters announce that they are “ready” for Hillary?  Is the bumper sticker suggesting that America has previously been a benighted land that is only now ready to finally recognize the merits of Hillary Clinton?  Shouldn’t the burden be the other way around — that it’s Hillary Clinton’s burden to show that she is ready for the most difficult job in the world?  The bumper sticker seems to tie into the theme that some potential Democratic candidates are beginning to float that Clinton is an arrogant, out-of-touch frontrunner whose campaign is based entirely on overwhelming fundraising and an ominous sense of inevitability.  It’s not an especially attractive theme for a presidential campaign.

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Nixon At 101

Yesterday was Richard Nixon’s birthday. “Tricky Dick,” who was the only American President ever to resign from office, would have been 101.

It’s interesting that Nixon, much more so than many other of his political contemporaries, remains a relevant, well-known figure today. Nobody talks much about Hubert Humphrey, or Barry Goldwater, or even Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower, but Nixon always finds his way into political conversations. For example, some people are comparing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s long press conference yesterday to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon adeptly defused allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct. The “Checkers” speech was the first real evidence of the power of TV in dealing with a political scandal, and it remains a touchstone even today.

Nixon isn’t remembered for his political positions. There isn’t a Nixon wing of the Republican party, and it’s hard to think of any current politician who is even remotely comparable to him. Instead, Nixon’s existence as a significant political figure at the dawn of the TV and mass media age, his demonstrations of how TV can have a positive and negative impact, and the fact that he endured the worst scandal in the nation’s history and resigned in disgrace will always make him a point of comparison.

And for every positive juxtaposition — Will Christie’s press conference be as effective as the “Checkers” speech? Is President X’s new global initiative the boldest foreign policy gambit since Nixon’s China strategy? — there will be thousands of uses of Nixon as a negative marker. The worst debate appearance since Nixon seemed to have a five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. The worst self-pitying press conference since Nixon said “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after he lost a race for California Governor in 1962. The most self-revealing comment since Nixon said “I am not a crook.” And, of course, the worst scandal since Watergate. The fact that, 40 years later, people still try to put “gate” on every scandal is powerful testimony to Nixon’s lasting place in the American political firmament.

Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago and died 20 years ago, but the references to him are still fresh and constant. He will always be a significant historical figure and an instant measuring stick when something bad happens to a politician who aspires to the presidency or who already occupies the Oval Office.

Who Should Be Romney’s Running Mate? Who Cares?

There’s a lot of chatter about who Mitt Romney might pick as his running mate.  Why not?  It’s a boring time in the political cycle, the economic data and the news from Europe are relentlessly, soul-crushingly bad, and today the President laid an egg with a turgid speech about the economy that offered no new ideas or magic bullets.  So why not spend a lot of time yakking about who might be Romney’s veep, rather than facing the painful truth about our current predicament?

It’s fun to speculate about such things.  Wouldn’t blunt, plain-spoken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie be a riot to watch in a vice presidential debate with Joe Biden?  And speaking of governors, how about Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal or South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, just to show that the GOP isn’t just a bunch of white guys with ’50s haircuts?  Or Senator Marco Rubio, who brings some dash and flash and can deliver a killer speech?  And for every interesting candidate, of course, there’s a dull, safe choice, like Ohio’s junior Senator, Rob Portman, who has lots of experience with budgets but not much pizzazz.

Only Romney and his advisors know for sure who they are considering, and what kinds of factors will enter into the mix.  For now, it’s worth mentioning that the selection of the vice president really doesn’t make much difference.  Consider Joe Biden.  He was a windbag and a gaffe-making machine as a long-serving Senator from Delaware, and he hasn’t changed as vice president.  Does it make any difference?  Does anybody really believe that Joe Biden has much influence on policy, or is entrusted with anything significant?  I sure hope he isn’t; I’m quite comfortable with his role as U.S. representative at high-level foreign funerals and inaugurations and one of the President’s chief errand boys and message-deliverers.

In my lifetime, most of the vice presidents have been either non-entities (Humphrey, Mondale, Ford) or embarrassments (Rockefeller, Biden), and sometimes both (Agnew, Quayle).  The country has somehow survived them all.  Even when the vice presidents seemed to be something more than the standard officeholder (George H.W. Bush, Gore) it’s not entirely clear whether they did much of substance in developing policy or advising the President.  The only veep who really seemed to have a significant role, at least for a time, was Dick Cheney — and I think his prominence made some people uncomfortable.

So let the speculation continue.  It can’t hurt, and it might distract us from the drumbeat of bad news.  Just don’t expect me to care much about who Romney picks, because it doesn’t really matter — even if Romney ends up winning.

A Return To Fear And Loathing

The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus wrote a recent column about the upcoming 2012 campaign where she used the magic words “fear and loathing” to describe what she believes will be a grueling, hard-fought battle.  I’m sure she used those words advisedly, because for any political junkie “fear and loathing” immediately conjures up memories of the greatest book on American politics ever written:  Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Before we trot off to our respective corners to gird ourselves for the bruising 2012 election, can we all take a moment — regardless of our political views — and acknowledge the greatness of this book?  It describes, in hilarious, crackling prose, Thompson’s gin-soaked, drug-addled misadventures as he manned the National Affairs Desk for Rolling Stone magazine.  He wrote about the behind-the-scenes efforts that produced George McGovern’s improbable defeat of doomed front-runner Edmund Muskie and perennial candidate Hubert Humphrey in the race for the 1972 Democratic nomination, and then McGovern’s landslide loss to President Nixon.  It includes Thompson’s report on his bizarre encounter with Nixon to discuss pro football, among countless other unforgettable vignettes.

If you’ve never read Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 I encourage you to get it and read it immediately.  It is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and its story of a political campaign is timeless.  After you’ve read this book, I can assure you that you’ll never look at a politician, or a reporter, with the same awe and reverence again.