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Thursday, June 07, 2012

On the "Political Timng" of Recent American Presidents


"If it be now, 't is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." -- Hamlet

Pity Ambassador Jon Huntsman. The President carved an elegant jade trap for him. The minute Huntsman accepted the Beijing post, he forfeited any chance at becoming the GOP nominee. C'est la vie; the timing was everything. Huntsman might have had a solid chance at becoming the GOP nominee this year -- he is far better qualified than Romney -- had he not become a part of an administration so hated by the GOP's primary voters. Even though he presented the most grown up argument against Obama to the Republican party, Huntsman never had a fair hearing.

In democracies -- and one could argue in all modern forms of government -- the timing is everything. Say what you will about George Dubya, his sense of political timing in at elections was excellent. Are political instincts inheritable? Do political parents unconsciously instill a sense of political timing? Do the children of people in the political arena have their biorhythms in tune with the ebbs and flows of the political tide? Bush 43 and his brother Jeb both won important Governorships vis-a-vis the Presidency. Dubya won the Governorship of Texas in 1995; Jeb Bush was elected governor of Florida in 1998. Dubya -- the Bush with the excellent timing -- became President. Jebby, unless he gets on the Romney ticket, is probably toast at the Presidential level. His time was 2012; his window of opportunity is just about closed.

The timing is everything. Bush 43 stepped into the void, bringing along all of his father's campaign big money contributors and ran against McCain in 2000 for the nomination. McCain was hampered by his stance on big money contributions and his moderate record and belovedness by the Eastern Establishment press. And so Bush, a one term constitutionally limited Governor, became the nominee and ran against a moderate Gore, whose votes were siphoned off by Nader in much the same way as his father's votes in '92 were hampered by Perot.

And say what you will about Al Gore, but his political instincts -- his timing -- is not so hot. Being "ahead of the curve" in power politics is not a good thing. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ralph Nader were farthest ahead of the curve on issues like auto safety but neither ever achieved the Presidency. Granted, Al Gore won in 2000, the populatr vote. But it was timing -- patience on the part of Bush and a certain shamelessness in loss -- that allowed him to be the last man standing in the electoral college (the only game that counts in a Presidential race). Dubya didn't go ballistic when Gore withdrew his concession; he waited for things to go to the conservative Supreme Court. Al Gore did the decent thing for his country; Bush, waiting, did the decent thing for himself.

President Obama's political timing thus far has been fantastic. A one-term Senator and one-term State Senator from Illinois doesn't usually get to the Oval Office on the fast track. But he rode the Change wave, intuitively conscious that 2008 was his time. Bill Clinton, in 1992 was the same, a small time Governor from Arkansas (with a little assist from Henry Ross Perot); he risked all -- Bush's approval ratings were upwards of 90% after the First Persian Gulf War -- and won big. His only real competition was a centrist Senator from Nebraska and a dying former Senator from Massachusetts (remember Tsongas?)

The pendulum swings. Obama time -- 2008 -- came at a price. The same tsunami of Change that his electorate demanded came at the cost of Bush's handling of the economy and our foreign wars. Change is a fickle mandate, nebulous, even. On the face of things, not much has changed. The economy is still, for most Americans, hazardous; our "reset" relations with Russia have improved, but not enough to claim abject victory; and what of this Green Jobs thing? "ObamaCare" might have been an overreach -- infuriating small business owners for its intrusive mandate; infuriating progressives for its lack of a public option. No win scenario, anyone?

In the end, Obama, politically, is a centrist from Illinois by way of Kansas and Harvard Law. His most radical break from past tradition of Presidents is his international childhood, which makes him the perfect steward of a new multilateral reality. The most analogous Presidency to Barack Obama in recent times is that of George Herbert Walker Bush, a preppy and a Yalie by way of Beijing and the United Nations. And his political timing, to be frank, was terrible. As his successor said, famously, "It's the economy, stupid." And when it comes to timing, the global economy waits for no single President.

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