Advancing a Free Society

And if Obama had said no…?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

President Obama’s announcement that he’ll seek a second term comes as no surprise. Not since Lyndon Johnson, in 1968, has an incumbent president who had the opportunity to serve an additional term passed on another shot at glory (Johnson doing so in a televised Oval Office address on March 31 of the election year).

Besides, you have to go back more than 160 years in American history to find a one-term president who gladly left Washington on his terms, not the voters’: James K. Polk (Polk also having the dubious distinction of the shortest post-presidency: he died three months after he left office in 1849).

Which got me to thinking: what if Obama had shocked the world and declared he was one (term) and done?

Who, on the Democratic side, would have stepped into the void?

Two individuals come to mind: Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They each lost to Obama in the Democratic primaries (Biden also crashing and burning in 1988). Each has a national network that could easily convert to a presidential run.

However, there’s the little matter of the “gray area” of Democratic politics.

Namely, the older the Democratic hopeful, the less his or her chances of winning the top prize.

Biden turned 68 last November. Clinton celebrated her 63 birthday a month prior to the vice president’s. As recently Democratic history shows, a candidate old enough to collect Social Security is a deal-breaker. That’s not the case on the Republican side, where John McCain (age 72, in 2008), Bob Dole (age 73, in 1996) and Ronald Reagan (age 69, in 1980) proved eminence grise was not necessarily a political liability.

Consider the ages of the last 10 non-incumbent Democrats at the time they won their party’s nomination:

  • 2008 Barack Obama, 47
  • 2004 John Kerry, 60
  • 2000 Al Gore, 52
  • 1992 Bill Clinton, 45 (he turned 46 later that summer)
  • 1988 Michael Dukakis, 55
  • 1984 Walter Mondale, 56
  • 1976 Jimmy Carter, 51
  • 1972 George McGovern, 49 (he turned 50 a week after the DNC convention)
  • 1968 Hubert Humphrey, 57
  • 1960 John Kennedy, 43

This suggests that Biden and Clinton would face big trouble in 2016, should either seek the presidency – from a generational aspect, at least. And it speaks to another issue that will emerge the moment the 20102 election ends: who’s the standard-bearer in the post-Obama Democratic Party?

Is it someone currently serving in Congress (not a terrific game plan, as Obama is the first sitting member of Congress since Kennedy to go straight to the Oval Office)? Or is it a sitting governor? Again, not a good scenario at present, as there are only 20 Democratic governors. Or is it someone yet to emerge?

All of which seems to suggest: time is the enemy – of a Democratic Party that lacks a deep bench.