March 29, 2011

The Playground President

Hatched by Dafydd

Friend Lee is a big fan of organized sports; for example, he follows professional, college, and even high-school basketball (though his first love is tennis) in a way that is totally alien to me. Some years ago, F.L. said something that had never occurred to me, but which upon reflection made perfect sense: It would be almost impossible for a phenomenal basketball player, like a Michael Jordan, to come up through the normal school ranks without serious fans of the game being aware of him long before he became a star.

There was one exception, however, and that was if the phenom did not play in high school or college but instead came from "the playground." Such a player might be overlooked even by rabid basketbrawl fanatics until he exploded onto the pro scene.

I was intrigued by the unknown but brilliant playground player and recently began mulling it in the realm of presidential politics. By "brilliant," I specifically mean a genius at getting elected; and by a "playground player," I mean a candidate who flies below the radar until he suddenly bursts, fully formed, onto the scene and captures the nomination and presidency.

The most recent example is, of course, Barack H. Obama himself. While I confidently predicted that Sen. Hillary "Fist Lady" Clinton would never, ever be the Democratic presidential nominee, I admit I had no idea at the beginning of that electoral cycle that Obama would be, in that sense at least, the One. I was sure some better known candidate would move in when Hillary began to falter and take the nomination. There were many possibilities: Former V.P. nominee John Edwards, former Gov. Tom Vilsack, Gov. Bill Richardson; I was shocked that none of them could gain any traction at all, and that in the end, Obama would win the brass ring.

Despite 2008, the phenomenon of the playground president, where a nominee seemingly comes out of nowhere, is vanishingly rare nowadays; usually, both parties nominate well-known politicians:

  • 2004: Incumbent George W. Bush vs. very well known Sen. JFK II.
  • 2000: Former Vice President Algore vs. popular TX Gov. GWB.
  • 1996: Incumbent Clinton vs. Senate Majority Leader Blob Dole.
  • 1992: Little known AK Gov. Bill Clinton vs. Incumbent GHWB.
  • 1988: Former VP GHWB vs. very well known MA Gov. Michael Dukakis.
  • 1984: Incumbent Ronald Reagan vs. former VP Walter Mondale.
  • 1980: Incumbent Jimmy Carter vs. extremely well known former CA Gov. Reagan.
  • 1976: Incumbent Gerald Ford vs. fairly well known GA Gov. Carter.
  • 1972: Incumbent Richard Nixon vs. well known peacenik, Sen. George McGovern.
  • 1968: Former VP Nixon vs. extremely well known Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
  • 1964: Incumbent Lyndon Johnson vs. even more extremely well known Sen. Barry Goldwater.
  • 1960: Two powerhouses: Nixon and the first JFK.

There's actually a good reason why we have so few playground presidents: In order to win the nomination, let alone the office itself, a candidate needs staggering sums of campagin funds; in order to get such vast sums, most people need millions of donors; and in order to gain that many donors, a candidate needs a huge level of political celebrity prior to the campaign itself. Ergo, most candidates are already quantities well-known to the electorate.

There are some exceptions to the political-celebrity rule:

  • Type I: People who are already famous in a field outside of politics.

Such alternative celebrities can sometimes generate the necessary campaign contributions and mass support, but they must have gravitas and leadership -- which is one reason why nobody whose celebrity has come primarily from the entertainment world has ever won the presidency.

Picture a military hero, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, or a humanitarian activist and long-time cabinet member, like Herbert Hoover. But of course, both were extremely well known long before their winning candidacies, both were widely expected to win as soon as they announced; and neither was a bolt from the blue, which is the phenomenon we're exploring.

  • Type II: the ultra-rich celebrity candidate who can self-fund his own campaign and don't need no steenkin' donors.

Donald Trump fills that role for the 2012 election. If Trump were to win the nomination, and especially if he beats Obama, I would definitely call him a playground president and wild long shot... but I don't expect him even to come close in either venue.

  • Finally, there is Type III: the successful businessman who isn't a huge celebrity, but who exudes an odor of quiet fiscal competence.

Note that Type III only plays well in an election that is (nearly) all about the economy -- like 2012.

He would have to be seen as fiscally conservative and socially middle of the road; seen as a uniter (whether he turns out to be isn't relevant to the election itself); a non-ideologue; and definitely not a flamboyant, larger than life personality -- that's Type II, not Type III. Rupert Murdoch would be a distinct possibility this year, were it not for the fact that he was born an Australian; and if Mitt Romney hadn't served as Governor of Massachusetts, with the concomitant and faintly damning track record, he would be another strong possibility.

The first two types of playground candidates would already be very well known today, though not in the capacity of politician. The only plausible example that springs to my mind is Gen. David Petraeus; I believe that if he retired from the Army and declared himself a Republican candidate for office, he would brush the other GOP candidates aside and then prevail against Obama himself. (If Petraeus ran as a Democrat, I doubt he could unseat the sitting POTUS in the Democratic primaries.) I can't think of any other celebrity who would have both the heft and the bottom to mount a serious and effective "outsider" campaign.

But what about a Type III playground presidential candidate?

He would have to be staggeringly wealthy but not too famous (else he falls into the Type II "Donald Trump" category instead).

He would have to come from the financial sector, not simpy an industrialist or technologist, like T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor) or Bill Gates (Microsoft); his entire selling point would be that he can fix the economy.

He would have to be statesmanlike but not come across as a political insider (else nobody would trust him).

I cannot think of any financiers who fit that bill -- but of course, by definition, he wouldn't be well known and could easily fly below the radar until he outlasts the other candidates in his party. Still, it's dicey right now, as nearly every famous financier has weighed in either for or against the Obamic stimulus bills, which makes him an ideologue of necessity. Maybe after a few electoral cycles, when we haven't a recent memory of a wildly divisive fiscal policy to use as a mental litmus test.

Alas, I'm sorry to say that I suspect the next GOP candidate will have to be a white male with a Western European sounding name. Obama represented a breakthrough milestone -- the first serious black presidential candidate; and typically after such a bold result, voters retreat to the tried and true, especially when the "other" is viewed as a fatally flawed president, wildly partisan and stunningly inexperienced... which Obama is increasingly viewed as on both left and right. This is another reason that Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal would be wise not to run in 2012; it's a tough sell to elect the first female or the first Indian president right after the first black president.

Given the unlikelihood of Petraeous deciding that now is the time to mount his white horse, I fear we're going to be stuck with one of the usual suspects on the GOP side -- probably a current or former governor -- and of course Barack Obama on the Democratic side. This means that Obama starts a floor of 50% support. This is not an "anybody but the incrumbent" election, as it was in 1976, 1980, and 2008; Obama will only lose to a brilliant and aggressive campaigner. That gives the edge to someone like Haley Barbour or Tim Pawlenty.

But still there is always that lightning-bolt chance of a playground presidential candidate; and if he appears, then all bets will be at sixes and nines.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, March 29, 2011, at the time of 7:12 PM


The following hissed in response by: Robert Wilson

Dafydd you make excellent points in your post "Playground President". I am currently reading "Radical in Chief" by Stanly Kurtz. If this history had been publicized before the election, Obama would not have been elected.

The above hissed in response by: Robert Wilson [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 30, 2011 7:54 AM

The following hissed in response by: BlueNight

Real conservatives/Republicans/Libertarians/libertarians are going to have to
1) pick someone
2) vet her/him ourselves
3) social network (the old-fashioned way) the heck out of him/her

at least six months before New Hampshire. That's the only way to avoid being stuck with "the old white guy" again by establishment/moderate voters.

The above hissed in response by: BlueNight [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 30, 2011 10:06 AM

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