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From Carter to Clinton: Selecting presidential nominees in the modern era

Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the two-term precedent set by George Washington by running for and winning a third and fourth term. Pressure for limiting terms followed FDR’s remarkable record. In 1951 the Twenty-Second constitutional amendment was ratified stating: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice…”

Accordingly, reelected Presidents must then govern knowing they cannot run again. The amendment transformed what was speculative into a definitive statement. No more than two. The result? Washington and the media soon turn to consider who will be next—speculation of a different order, to include among those asking “Why not me?” Sitting Presidents begin to fade in their last two years.

In three post-1951 two-term limit cases (Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton) the Vice President as heir apparent was the nominee. Two lost (Nixon to Kennedy and Gore to Bush), one Vice President won (Bush defeating Dukakis). Nixon later was elected twice but resigned due to the Watergate scandal. Ford, his Vice President who took over, lost to Carter in 1976. And Bush watched several candidates in both parties battle in an open contest for the nomination (not including Vice President Cheney). Obama was nominated over Hillary Clinton and won the general election.

Now we are observing an extraordinary nomination contest. Having won a Senate majority in 2014 and having increased their numbers in controlling the House of Representatives and among governors encouraged several Republicans to seek the nomination in 2016. Three first-term senators have already announced their candidacies at this writing (Ted Cruz, Texas; Rand Paul, Kentucky; and Marco Rubio, Florida). Former and present governors are preparing to join the race.  Why so early—ten months before the first state contests? Fundraising, hiring staff, creating an organization, media attention, name recognition, testing themes, endorsements, preparing for debates, to name a few of the more important reasons.

Polls show a wide-open Republican contest, along with a few straw votes by organizations as barometers at this early date. Media outlets have made a turn in coverage to who will be the GOP presidential nominee months before the first caucus and primary.

The goal:
The White House. Public domain via Pixabay.

Meanwhile on the Democratic side, the nominee appears to be a new version of an heir apparent trying a second time. Ordinarily the successor has been the Vice President. At this point, however, Joe Biden has made no obvious moves to candidacy. Rather, Hillary Rodham Clinton has emerged as the leading Democratic prospective successor to President Obama. Indeed, she is acknowledged to have created an aura of inevitability. The contrast with the challenges facing the Republican field is stark. She has ample funds, an experienced staff and tested organization, a nationally and internationally familiar image, continuous media coverage and public exposure, and a former President as her husband and advisor. Personally she has served as First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, White House manager of a national health care proposal, Senator from New York, a near-miss presidential candidate in 2008, and Secretary of State in the Obama first term.

One may well ask: Why should Hillary Clinton, the inevitable candidate, announce along with three freshman Republican senators with so much to accomplish? Perhaps to exclude others, and seal the deal, possibly to do it in her own style, or possibly both. The video announcement itself was soft, low-key, even gentle as she stated her intention of meeting with real people in Iowa, listening to them door-to-door so as to serve better as their “champion.” However, as several commentators wrote, her plans to listen avoid clarifying her broader, and possibly more contentious, goals in serving as President.

Other questions related to the Democratic nomination are: Why the inevitability? Are there no other major contenders? No freshman senator “hot shots,” apart from Elizabeth Warren who isn’t running? No accomplished governors seeking national recognition? The answer seems to lie in the weakness of the Democratic “farm team” in the Senate and the State Houses. The only senators mentioned as thinking about running for President are declared socialist Bernie Sanders, a sitting senator from Vermont and James Webb, a former one-term senator from Virginia. And the sole governor is Martin O’Malley, retired from serving two terms in Maryland (which now has a Republican governor). Joe Biden is mentioned should Hillary Clinton falter. But no one else merits media attention, even speculatively. Comparatively, the Republican “farm team” now shows 31 governors, 54 senators, and 247 representatives.

In summary, the 2016 nomination race at this point is wildly unsettled in the Republican Party. The announced and prospective candidates range from those with little or no executive experience to those with impressive records as sitting and retired governors to those lacking both elected executive and legislative backgrounds. No one today can claim a commanding position. Meanwhile, Democrats offer one option, Hillary Clinton, who, as one commentator noted, may have made her announcement serve also as her national convention acceptance speech. The next 20 months should delight card-carrying political junkies here and abroad, perhaps even those objecting to the Twenty-Second Amendment.

Feature image credit: American Flag. Public domain via Pixabay.

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