Welcome to the 2008 Presidential Tote Board. Over the next 21 tortuous months, in what promises to be the longest campaign in American history, we’ll lay odds on all the candidates running for the presidency, both in the weekly paper and more regularly online at thePhoenix.com/toteboard. We know you can’t wait to see Joe Biden start to self-destruct (Wait, that’s already happened!) or John McCain lose his temper in public for the first time. But before satisfying the betting folks, let’s look at the larger elements that will determine the winners. Over the next two years, you’ll read a lot about how organization and money really establish who wins or how the Internet has hijacked the whole process. Forget about it: presidential politics conforms to a small number of rules that don’t much change from one campaign to the next. So, before charging up the scoreboard, let’s spend a few weeks going over the rules of the game.
Rule 1: Ideas win campaigns
Sure, a winning campaign benefits from lots of things, from a ton of money and good press to a successful strategy. But by focusing on these things, the media tend to overlook what a successful candidate needs above all: a central, compelling idea. Voters don’t care which organizers presidential candidates hire in New Hampshire; they care about where their prospective leaders promise to take the country.
A compelling idea is not a platform or a collection of boring policy proposals. Rather, it’s a broad animating concept that voters can rally around. John Kennedy inspired America by proclaiming “It’s Time to Get This Country Moving Again.” After the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam, Jimmy Carter reminded the country that it needed a complete Washington outsider at the reins of government. Bill Clinton understood that a new Democratic Party needed to re-establish its appeal to the average voter. And, although Ronald Reagan’s ad-meisters devised the slogan “It’s Morning in America” during the 1984 re-election campaign, the candidate for years had articulated the same simple, optimistic, conservative message of freedom from “big government”
This year, a lot of candidates have big ideas. As the first serious woman presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton will most likely focus her campaign on the idea that a woman would be a very different and better type of leader than a man. (Whether Hillary represents that notion authentically will be fodder for later columns.) Barack Obama will undoubtedly articulate a similar vision from the perspective of race; he’s already begun to argue for a new kind of partisan-free politics that could tie neatly into this theme.
It’s a tribute to how powerful the notion of the first female or black president is that Arizona governor Bill Richardson, the nation’s first serious Hispanic candidate, may have trouble getting traction just because that idea can’t compete with the other two this year.
With Obama and Clinton in the race, the rest of the Democratic field better have big ideas of their own. John Edwards — with his poverty-centered “two Americas” theme — has clearly given some thought to how he might compete with the putative front-runners. The rest of the Democratic field, however, doesn’t seem as prepared. It’s an axiom of presidential politics that candidates who haven’t articulated “big ideas” before a national campaign are unlikely to be able to do it once the curtain goes up. That’s bad news for Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, and the rest of the Democratic field.
On the GOP side, John McCain argued fairly convincingly, in 2000, that he was independent enough to be above politics — a kind of updated Ross Perot. But will that idea work in 2008, given that the country has grown more partisan, and, more important, the candidate now seems less independent? McCain may need a second act. Rudy Giuliani is still a national hero almost six years after 9/11 — a considerable feat — and it’s likely that he’ll run his campaign on a kind of traditional reformist “he’ll do for America what he did for New York.” (That theme, however, isn’t all that different from Mike Dukakis’s “Massachusetts miracle,” urged on voters in 1988 — and we know how that ended.)
The other GOP candidates have their work cut out for them. Mitt Romney, in particular, is going to have to learn that positioning oneself as the “right-wing” candidate hardly offers voters a compelling vision of the direction in which you will lead the country, especially if your new posture is not particularly consistent with your prior persona.
The two leading non-candidates — Newt Gingrich and Al Gore — are both thought to offer big ideas, but trouble clouds both lofty realms. Gingrich has ideas — he’s a veritable idea machine! But that isn’t the same as having one compelling theme. He’s reminiscent of the trial lawyer who got up in oral argument and said, “Your Honor, I’d like to make ten points,” and the judge answered, “Just give me your best one.”