Presidential politics: what to watch for in 2015

It’s far too early to guess intelligently about who will be elected president next year or whom the Republicans will nominate, but this doesn’t seem to be stopping many pundits.

Fox News has its Special Report panels lay odds on the Republican field once a week. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza handicaps the Republican field once a week. And the Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes has just produced an assessment of that field so exhaustive that it includes Donald Trump.

Memories of eight years ago prevent me from joining in the fun. At this time in 2007, and for a considerable period thereafter, I was convinced that the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, I thought Mitt Romney had the edge with Rudy Giuliani in second position.

This time, I’m content to identify what I believe are the two big things to watch for once the race heats up. They are: how will Scott Walker and Hillary Clinton perform as candidates. Stated differently: is Walker ready for prime time and is Clinton past her sell-by date?

Let’s start with Walker. The enthusiastic reaction to his Iowa speech demonstrates (1) his potential as a candidate and (2) the GOP’s yearning for a fresh conservative face. If Walker continues to impress Republicans, he might well become the front-runner in a race in which the other two main candidates will likely be Jeb Bush (as the “establishment” guy) and Ted Cruz (as the hard-line conservative). I see Walker as the probable front-runner in this race because his appeal would be broader than that of Bush and Cruz (or, say, Chris Christie and Rand Paul if things played out that way).

But to reach this status, Walker will have to perform well as a candidate. He’s shown he can deliver the big speech, but can he thread the policy needle on issues like immigration such that he will retain his appeal to the base without alienating the establishment? And can he hold his own in debates with the likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio?

Bush, Cruz, and Paul aren’t trying to thread the policy needle and at this juncture, nor do they need to. Rubio would like to thread it and he’s demonstrated a certain adroitness in this regard.

Walker has also behaved adroitly by not getting specific about national and foreign policy. But once he enters the race, he will be expected to sound like an expert on everything. He’s at a disadvantage here because he hasn’t been in the Senate or House and hasn’t run for president before (compare Rubio, Cruz, Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, etc.) and has a difficult full time job (compare Bush, Huckabee, and Santorum).

If Walker isn’t ready for prime time, I believe Marco Rubio will take his place in the eventual three-way race. Rubio would probably be less formidable than a high-performing Walker because he has alienated a large portion of the base on the immigration issue.

Accordingly, the outcome of a three-way race involving Bush, Cruz, and Rubio seems more up-in-the-air than one in which Walker, not Rubio, is the “bridge” candidate. Such a race might therefore extend longer into 2016 and be more bruising. This scenario would benefit the Democrats.

Let’s turn, then, to that side of the divide. Many in the Democratic base would prefer to nominate someone other than Hillary Clinton, preferably Elizabeth Warren. But for most of the base, the overriding concern is holding the White House.

Right now, Clinton comfortably out-polls her Republican rivals. As long as she continues to do so, her chances of facing serious opposition in the primaries are no better than 50-50, in my opinion.

However, Clinton has gone largely silent since her not-so-successful book tour. Thus, the polls don’t account much for what she actually looks like in action.

When Clinton returns to the spotlight as an announced candidate for president (I assume here that she is running), will she stumble, as she did at times during her book tour and/or appear lackluster as she did at times in the 2008 campaign? If so, serious potential left-wing entrants like Warren will perk up.

If Clinton’s stumbling affects her standing in the polls, she likely will face serious opposition for the left (if Clinton goes into free-fall, Joe Biden will probably enter, as well). Again, the polls to watch are the ones that pair her against Republicans, not against other Democrats.

Clinton is more likely to stumble if she’s already under pressure from early Democratic entrants. Such entrants need not be serious candidates, just pesky ones. Jerry Brown, for example, might well tie Clinton in knots, as he did to some extent to her husband all those years ago.

If serious entrants like Warren emerge, Clinton will probably remain the favorite. But, in a scenario where she’s not performing particularly well, she will be vulnerable.

Moreover, if Clinton faces a difficult primary struggle, she will have to move further to the left than if she’s only trying to avoid entry by an Elizabeth Warren. This would harm her prospects in the general election.

If it’s too early to pick the nominees, it’s certainly too early to pick the general election winner. We don’t know what the state of the economy will be in a year and a half from now; nor do we know, for example, whether big-time terrorism will reach our shores.

Assuming things remain about as they are, I think the Democratic nominee, if it’s Clinton, will have a small edge. The edge will be smaller still if the Republican candidate is Walker or Rubio than if it’s Bush or, especially, Cruz.

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