One pitfall of political writing is that you eventually feel a bit like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” waking over and over to the same morning and same old song.
But while Murray’s alarm clock played “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, I’m currently hearing three oldies in heavy rotation:
Will the President Dump His Veep?
Will a Third-Party Candidate Make Waves in 2012?
Will We See a Brokered Convention?
I’ve heard these tunes before, many times. But they all spin bogus scenarios, cooked up — quite frankly — by journalistic brethren who fantasize about fresh story lines.
Take oldie No. 1, for instance. Way back in 1956, forests were felled to provide newsprint for all the stories about how President Dwight Eisenhower was going to dump Richard Nixon from the re-election ticket. The same thing happened in 1972, amid rumors that President Nixon was going to dump Spiro Agnew. It happened again in 1992, when the first President Bush was supposedly set to dump Dan Quayle.
And, sure enough, now we’re hearing that President Barack Obama “may” replace Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton.
Actually, this one has been around for a while. Bob Woodward insisted on CNN last year that this scenario was “on the table.” Politico and the Washington Post ran speculative stories in the summer of ‘10.
Two months ago, columnist Jonathan Alter insisted that the scenario is “definitely not impossible,” and, two weeks ago, Republican commentator Pete du Pont wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a Clinton ascent “seems possible,” if only to stir the pot and tap her popularity among the older whites who have long been cool toward Obama. This kind of chatter is apparently too delicious to resist.
But Obama will not dump Biden. I say this despite a dearth of inside knowledge. I say this because it’s obvious what would happen if he did. The dead-tree press, cable shows, blogosphere and Twitterworld would spin Obama’s move as a symptom of political weakness, as the act of a desperate cynic with no sense of loyalty. The Fox News blondes would spend entire afternoons assailing “an administration in turmoil.”
Oh, one other thing: Ego is a key element in politics. With Hillary, you get Bill — and there’s no way Obama would want to be perceived as needing Bill Clinton to help drag him across the 2012 finish line. There are many reasons no veep has been dumped in midstream since 1944, but this iteration of the ego factor is surely another.
Similarly, the “third party” scenario — in which a wild-card savior emerges to skew the election results — is another durable oldie. Remember the Michael Bloomberg boomlet, on the eve of 2008? Or the ephemeral movement known as Unity08? Or all the stories, back in the ‘90s, about how Ross Perot was going to breach the Republican-Democratic duopoly? (New York Times, March 1996: Perot “could rebalance the race in unpredictable ways.”) Perot never came close to matching Theodore Roosevelt’s record third-party tally of 27 percent in 1912; indeed, over the span of a century, no outsider since TR has skewed the outcome of a presidential race.
No matter. The third-party scenario is with us again. Feel the excitement, people: Jon Huntsman, saddled with microscopic Republican poll numbers, said last week that he “hasn’t ruled out” an independent bid! That sparked a few speculative stories, none of which seriously asked whether Huntsman would really want to spend half a billion dollars of his own money for a quixotic 50-state defeat.
But the big attraction this time around is Americans Elect, a “virtual” third party that plans to conduct a national primary on the Internet in June. Digital democracy for all, endorsed by sensible centrists like New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman. And we can all sign up as delegates and choose the nominee! Granted, the chosen nominee would actually have to agree to run, and tens of millions would have to be spent in states with prohibitive ballot access rules, but those nuances have not stopped the breathless headlines (“A third party in 2012?”)
Somehow I don’t see this oldie yielding anything new. Barring a tea party revolt against a nominee like Mitt Romney, and the sudden emergence of a conservative alternative (commentator Timothy Noah nominates Sarah Palin, who “would probably see the certainty of failure as a plus, given her demonstrated scant interest in office-holding”), we again seem destined to choose between the two major products, a la Coke and Pepsi. Despite all the empty calories.
We also seem headed, next summer, for another drama-free Republican convention — despite the latest Groundhog Day recycling of the “brokered convention” scenario. This ritual story is a big favorite among drama-hungry journalists, especially those who were weaned on old movies featuring party bosses in smoke-filled rooms. And political insiders always chat up the possibility — hence a Philadelphia Inquirer story, in May ‘87, warning of “possibly a brokered convention” in summer ‘88; and a McClatchy News Service headline, 20 years later, that looked ahead to summer ‘08 and asked, “Could both parties’ conventions be brokered?”
Tea party rebels notwithstanding, most Republicans by nature are sticklers for convention unity. They rally to the primary-season winner. And they certainly don’t want to look unruly in front of the “liberal media.” I’d suggest that if you crave convention drama, rent the ‘64 film “The Best Man,” where Cliff Robertson clashes with Henry Fonda.
On the other hand, one viewing will make you pine for a brokered convention. But fear not. If it doesn’t happen next summer, you’ll have stories anew to stoke you in 2016. I can almost hear the wake-up ditty by Sonny and Cher.
• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.