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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2011

From nobodies to nominees

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama cannot be beaten. The root of this wisdom is the aphorism that you can’t beat somebody (Mr. Obama) with nobody (any of the dozen Republican nobodies).

The provenance of that aphorism — the beginning of the 20th century — points to its fallacy. Since then, five nobodies or near-nobodies have been elected president — in 1920, 1960, 1976, 2000, and 2008.

Partisans of those five will be outraged at that characterization, but were Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama substantially more established political figures the year before they were inaugurated than the current crowd of Republican possibles?

Senator Kennedy and Senator Obama scored historic victories when they became the first Catholic and black presidents, respectively. But neither was an inevitable nominee, let alone a favorite for the White House, when the 1960 and 2008 campaigns began.

Harding may not have been even the most distinguished or distinctive Ohioan in the 1920 race. Democratic nominee James Cox had served in the U.S. House and had two star turns as governor.

Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were successful governors, but neither left footprints as deep as Mitch Daniels in Indiana or Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

There are, to be sure, some howlers in today’s Republican field. But is Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party firebrand from Minnesota, more or less outside the American political mainstream than, say, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has run for president twice in Democratic primaries?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose prospects grow dimmer by the day as details of his personal life are examined, is only slightly less a has-been than was Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, a Democratic candidate in 2008.

The important thing to recall is that presidential challengers almost always seem weaker until they get the nomination, when their influence and appeal grow. The very act of accepting a major-party presidential nomination has the effect of one side of the mushroom in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which made her grow very tall indeed.

Indeed, the Alice Effect transformed Kennedy from a senator taking on a sitting vice president into a political powerhouse who, at his nominating convention in Los Angeles, spoke of a New Frontier. Consider the speech he delivered there in the Los Angeles Coliseum:

“The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not,” he said. “Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric.”

Had that speech been delivered by a junior senator on the Senate floor, it would have been remembered by nobody. But today it is remembered as a signature speech of the era. The phrase is indelibly imprinted on the American character.

A presidential nomination has that effect. That’s why Mr. Obama’s re-election is not assured, despite the apparent weakness of the GOP field.

That said, Mr. Obama has many advantages.

First is the presidency, which confers upon him gravitas and glamor that no challenger can match. Then there is his robust fund-raising operation, which grows out of his residency in the White House and his efficiency in raising money.

That was on full display during his 2008 campaign, which allowed him to conduct $35,800-a-plate dinners such as the one he held at the home of Jon Corzine, a former senator, governor, and Goldman Sachs chieftain.

Mr. Obama also has the power to control the political agenda, though in recent weeks he has ceded that to Republicans who have made the deficit the defining issue of the time, drowning out the surprising notion that low interest rates have rendered the cost of serving the nation’s ever-bigger debt the lowest it has been in more than a dozen years. Still, the deficit remains a huge problem — and a huge drag on the Obama re-election campaign.

Nobody wants to deal with the debt right now. Not the President, because the choices are politically unpalatable to Democratic interest groups. And not the Republicans, because the longer the issue persists, the better are their prospects in 2012.

Otherwise, the budget question could be resolved in 25 minutes of reasonable compromise involving the Social Security retirement age and tax caps, Medicare benefit levels and eligibility ages, military spending cuts, and a comprehensive overhaul of the income-tax system that would please both the left by eliminating loopholes and the right by lowering rates.

As St. Augustine might say if he were a member of the House: Give me budget discipline, but not yet.

Republicans also seem to be saying: Give me a 2012 front-runner, but not yet. But they’ll have one soon enough, and when the eventual nominee walks onto the stage at the first debate next year, he or she will have the same podium and the same opportunity to score points as Mr. Obama.

Of all the ladders of social mobility in America, none is steeper than a presidential nomination. It allows a nobody to become a nominee and thus a somebody in an instant’s time. The person who knows that better than anyone else on Earth is Barack Obama.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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