Thursday, August 31, 2006

President Rice? Not Likely

Every time I read an investment prospectus, it touts the performance of the investment over time, but then includes the disclaimer that past performance is no indication of future performance. Well, yeah. Nobody is very good at useful predictions of the future, but we continually make decisions based on history because, taken in proper context, it can at least give us some idea of what might be coming down the road. But it’s a very subjective and unclear process. Different events have different historical value and different relationships to current events, and it’s not always clear where an event ranks on the value scale. Also, events occur from time to time that completely defy history.

With all of those disclaimers, I can say that it is likely that there will be no U.S. President Condoleeza Rice; at least not in the near future. Dr. Rice, who currently serves as Secretary of State, has gained a cult-like rock star status among certain pockets of conservatives, who promote her as a possible candidate for president. Rice regularly says that she has no ambitions to run for the office (see here).

The fact that Rice has never held an elected office is a strike against her. Per this site on presidential facts, “Five Presidents had never held any prior elected office.” They are Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and William Howard Taft. Three of these were considered war heroes, so they fit well with the profile of the warrior that is electable, having proven to be a worthy high ranking leader in a popular military campaign. Hoover and Taft both served in a variety of appointed positions, eventually serving at the cabinet level.

Hoover leveraged his Secretary of Commerce position to the point that his policies eclipsed those of the presidents under whom he served. Taft served a very public and popular term as the appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. He served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, and for a time as acting Secretary of State. Roosevelt trusted Taft so much that he was the de facto executive when Roosevelt was away. A few years after his presidency, Taft became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and is currently the only president that also served on the court. Roosevelt was still very popular when he decided against running for a third term and more or less anointed Taft as his successor.

So, it is not unheard of for an appointee that has served at the cabinet level, but has never served in an elected position to become president. But it has only occurred under somewhat extraordinary circumstances. I could be reading the current situation completely wrong, but it does not appear that the elements are in place today to make it possible for something like this to occur in the near future.

This little foray into history also explains why it was necessary for Hillary Clinton to serve in a relatively high elected office before she could become a serious contender for the presidency. Statistically speaking, Americans are unlikely to trust that office (or even the vice presidency) to someone that has never before held a high elected office (state governor, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, mayor of a major city, etc.) unless they have become a war celebrity in a popular campaign.

A few years ago Colin Powell fit well into the military celebrity image, but his disloyalty to the Bush administration during his tenure as Secretary of State has probably doomed his chances with the GOP machine. If his continual under-the-covers working against the White House wasn’t enough of a poison pill, the recent revelation that he knew—but kept secret from the White House—that his right-hand man at the State Department, Richard Armitage, was the actual official responsible for leaking Valarie Plame’s identity to the press, leaving others to have their lives destroyed over the resulting mess (see here and here) has surely fatally injured his chances for any kind of GOP nomination.

Our little look at history also demonstrates why General Wesley Clark is unlikely to be elected president. War hero in a popular campaign, some of you say? Who even knew his name before he ran in 2004? Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were each household names throughout the country before they ran for the presidency. Clark? Most Americans can’t tell you who he is or anything about him. “General who?” they say.

And while Ross Perot got a 19% of the vote in 1992, the vast majority of Americans could not bring themselves to vote for a person that had neither held a high elected office nor a high appointed office. If Bill Gates were to jump up and decide to run today, he would likely suffer a similar fate. As much as people like to gnash their teeth about career politicians, when it comes to our highest elected office, that is what we consistently demand—somebody with experience. Our voting history speaks louder than our words in this matter.

Back to Condi. Could a popular outgoing president anoint her to be his successor? Well, unless matters change drastically over the next two years, that would be a resounding no. Of course, it is possible that Iraq could suddenly become a fantastic success, Iran could peacefully back down from its nuclear program and its ambitions to control the entire Middle East, and George Bush could become wildly popular with the vast majority of Americans. Possible, yes, but unlikely. Is it likely that Rice’s policies will become so popular with Americans that they will be happy to support her for president? Again, possible, but unlikely.

Add to all of this the fact that Dr. Rice is doing none of the heavy lifting required to build a campaign apparatus. There is no fundraising going on. No organization building. No grassroots outreach efforts. “Hey,” you say, “there’s more than two years left until the next presidential election.” Yes, but every serious candidate for 2008 is already up to her/his elbows in the serious work of building and maintaining a campaign. In today’s world, you can’t simply decide a year before the election to run for the presidency and then hope to have any chance whatsoever at the job.

This same principle devolves down to state and local politics, but the timeframe is increasingly shorter the closer to the local level you get. Except in extraordinary circumstances, sufficient lead time and organization building is required for any political race. Olene Walker discovered this when she jumped on the gubernatorial bandwagon way too late in the game two years back. The fact that she was already serving as governor did not overcome her failure to build a strong campaign apparatus.

OK, so Condi’s not running in 2008. What about 2012 or 2016? Or what about the GOP candidate selecting her as the VP candidate? I don’t know about any of that. A lot will happen between now and four or eight years down the road. Also, VP candidates are often chosen for coalition building within the party and/or broad national appeal. I’m not sure how well this works in her favor. And I’ve got to say that (as silly as this sounds) the fact that ‘Rice’ and ‘vice’ rhyme is probably a strike against her.

Dr. Rice is quite popular with a narrow section of politically active conservatives. The polls cited that show her popularity involve mostly conservative activists. Most voters aren’t even thinking about this November yet, let alone November 2008. Many likely voters probably can’t even tell you today who Dr. Rice is. So for now, don’t expect to see Condoleeza Rice as President or VP.

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