It's a bit of a slow period for political news: Congress is going into recess, the Affordable Care Act is in a kind of procedural limbo, most people are turning their attention to the holidays – and, perhaps most disheartening, the economy just continues to trudge along, offering neither much hope nor much political urgency. That there should be more political urgency regarding jobs and the economy is a topic of eloquently-expressed frustration by my friend Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post. But economic numbers are hard, while idle speculation about the 2016 presidential candidates is super-easy! And, to be fair, it's a subject that will be on the minds of regular folks soon enough. With that in mind, some thoughts on how to discuss – and perhaps even report on – the candidates and their chances.
1. It's OK to say someone is inevitable!
I mean, that's strong language, but the pseudo-sophistication of pooh-poohing a frontrunner is a short-term strategy for punditry. While it's true that the chattering class deemed Hillary Clinton "inevitable" in 2008, there's little evidence that the inevitable label had a role in her eventual loss. Barack Obama's unprecedented levels of organization and fundraising were, you know, significant factors.
In GOP races, there's even less reason to hedge: conservatives are historically conservative in their choices, not just for the past few, either: for almost 20 years, 1976-2004, there was a Bush or Dole on every ticket! Between 1952 and 1972, Richard Nixon was on five out of six of them. 2016 will be a little different, what with the GOP not having an obvious front-runner, but don't be afraid to stick to the safest name (Chris Christie) even if seems kind of boring. Unless you just don't want to be boring. See next items.
2. If you're going to think out-of-the-box, have some data on your side.
On the Democratic side, the Elizabeth Warren "boomlet" is almost entirely of journalistic blue-skying. The lady says she does not want to run for president, and she seems far too level-headed to try to muscle her way in based on the pining of some Beltway insiders.
On the Republican side, the words "Donald Trump" and "Sarah Palin" are actually Democratic fund-raising slogans. But drop this knowledge: a schism in the Iowa GOP has made that influential (though by no means predictive) caucus especially friendly ground for a Libertarian candidate (Rand Paul). The GOP's dismal relationship with minorities could nudge its leaders to embrace a black or Hispanic candidate – but why not also cite polling that shows most Republicans actually agree with the majority of Americans who say Roe v Wade should remain the law of the land? Softening their pro-life stance would almost instantly give the female voters who fled the GOP in 2012 a reason to reconsider.
Names to drop: Brian Sandoval, the Hispanic (and pro-choice) governor of Nevada. Don't forget the rousing 2012 GOP Convention speech by choice supporter Condoleezza Rice! (who is going to have a new book out in 2015; the pre-election-year book is a fairly reliable sign of presidential ambitions.)
3. Parse the difference between "lack of interest" or "no plans" in a presidential run and a denial that one will run.
Warren, for instance, has "pledged to serve out her term", which is about as high as one can go on the scale of "not going to" as you can get. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has explained her desire to not abandon her family to the rigors of a presidential campaign, which is arguably an even more unambiguous rejection. Compare these statements to Clinton's ("I have absolutely no plans to run") or Jeb Bush's ("I'm not thinking about it") or Christie ("I'm nowhere near making a decision yet"). Non-denial-denials will become increasing untenable positions as donors and organizers make their/i> decisions about who to support. Caveat: Even Warren- and Martinez-strength denials can be subject to repeal based on intense personal soul-searching or donor entreaties. (See: Obama, Barack.)
4. Gaffes are not death sentences.
Corollary: gaffes are not the same as unintended revelations about core beliefs. (Confusingly, "a politician accidentally telling the truth" is one classic definition of a gaffe. We need a new lexicon!) Sure, Rick Perry's moment of innumeracy marked the start of a deep dive in the polls, but that's probably an exception to the general rule that most politicians can survive an embarrassing moment, especially if it's handled with humor and grace afterwards. (Perry's inability to recover probably had more to do with his backstage lackadaisical attitude toward the campaign itself than his on-stage brain freeze.)
Politicians say stupid things all the time: Obama's visit to 57 states. Romney's affection for Michigan's perfectly-sized trees. George W Bush. Joe Biden. Sarah Palin. Saying something stupid is not the same as saying something that reveals something about your character: That's the difference between loving Michigan's trees and dismissing 47% of the electorate, or implying there is such a thing as "illegitimate" rape. This is all by way of saying that Joe Biden is still a pretty strong candidate.
[IMAGE: Outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to State Department employees in a lobby of the State Department on February 1 2013 in Washington DC, via AFP]