At dinner the other night with a collection of political consultants, pollsters, some journalists and a few civilians, we went around the table giving our predictions of the presidential nominees for 2016. Some interesting names popped up. One of them was Bill de Blasio, the lefty mayor of New York, and another was Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who seems to be running for president on a platform of discovering who he is. Elizabeth Warren was also mentioned and so, in a weary sort of way, was Hillary Clinton. Like Paul, she’s looking for a message.
Jeb Bush was of course mentioned, with some insiders confiding that they knew he would run while others said he would not. His son George P. Bush said Sunday that his father is seriously considering it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also mentioned, but his state’s bungling of the Ebola crisis did not enhance his image any. Mitt Romney was ruled out because his wife is dead-set against another campaign.
All in all, lots of politicians were mentioned — Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Scott Walker — although possibly because the dinner was being held in New York, the name of the ever-campaigning Rick Santorum was not heard. He will undoubtedly surface in Iowa, where, last time out, he was the official, if forgotten, winner. Absent Jeb Bush, the Republican field is so wide open I almost jumped in myself. All I lack is the necessary funds and the appropriate ideological convictions. Still . . .
Okay, let’s clear away some brush. The consensus was that the left and the right wings of the two parties are in furious turmoil and very unhappy with the mainstream candidates. For the Democrats, there’s no one more mainstream than Clinton, practically an incumbent. Warren is virtually Clinton’s opposite: a neophyte who has been in the Senate only since 2013 and has never run a company or state. We have learned — have we not? — that the presidency requires some executive experience.
Clinton has plenty of experience. What she lacks — and what she has lacked for some time — is a rousing theme. Warren would be the authentic champion of the besieged middle class and make the banks pay for their sins. Clinton would do . . . what? Invite them to yet another meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative? At the moment, Clinton’s main appeal is to women. Trouble is, Warren happens to be a woman, too. Clinton needs more — something else. In an anti-incumbent period, she’s an easy target.
Bush has a similar problem. No one could be more of an incumbent without actually holding the office. He is the son of one president, the brother of another and the former governor of Florida. He has adopted mainstream positions on education and immigration, but he, too, lacks a clear message, and he certainly is not going to criticize Bush programs that helped trigger the creation of the tea party. Bush is the very soul of conservatism. ’Tis a pity. What the party wants is spleen.
So we get to Paul. He is the son of Ron Paul, the unabashed libertarian, and he started out as one, too. Of late, though, he has been amending and revising his positions, Botox-ing some of his strange views — such as his now-retracted objection to a crucial part of the Civil Rights Act — and making an effort to appeal to black voters. On its cover, Time magazine this month called him “The Most Interesting Man in Politics,” which says more about the rest of the field than it does about him.
The trouble with Paul is that he is running ahead of his views, revising as he goes along. He has the process backward: First find out who you are, and then run for president. Paul is taking foreign policy tutorials, but there is a lot to learn and he has made some rookie errors. Last month, he accused John McCain of having his picture taken with Islamic State rebels in Syria — swallowing whole a ridiculous Internet rumor.
Paul is not ready — never mind his cockamamie ideology. The same holds for Warren, although she makes abundant sense. As for the establishment front-runners, they are safe but unexciting. Almost a century after he wrote it, we now have a political version of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Oh yes, my prediction: The center will not hold.
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