In 1963, the legendary Russell Baker, writing in The New York Times, explained how we in the press, years before the nation’s next presidential campaign, are miraculously able to agree upon who qualify — and, perhaps more importantly, who do not qualify — as plausible White House contenders. Baker identified the “Great Mentioner” as the mythical author of this list. (We say such things as, “Sen. Striving and Gov. Driven are frequently mentioned for the national ticket.”)
Even though the next presidential election is more than three years away, the Great Mentioner has already come up with a roster of challengers, which includes, in addition to current and former officeholders, more than a few outside-the-box private-sector possibilities: the billionaire CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg; the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban; former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; and Disney CEO Bob Iger. Here I will venture one categorical guarantee (but understand that this comes from the same sage who, in 2000, confidently predicted that “President” John McCain would not seek a second term in 2004): The 2020 nominee will not be an outsider, a non-politician who has achieved professional success and personal celebrity.
Why can I be so sure? Because when any American president’s performance in office or his personal manner disappoints American voters, those voters go looking for a new president who actually possesses the qualities they have learned, to their regret, are missing in the rejected president. For example, after Watergate — the criminality and corruption of the failed presidency of Richard Nixon, who, after service in both the House and the Senate and two terms as vice president, had been arguably the nation’s most experienced chief executive — Jimmy Carter’s single term as Georgia governor and total unfamiliarity with the ways of Washington, plus his solemn pledge never to lie to the voters, were highly regarded as virtues by a disillusioned electorate.
Carter was honest, intelligent and hardworking. However, confronting difficult economic forces, he seemed to change his mind a lot. Enter the contagiously optimistic Ronald Reagan, who, communicating great confidence, had almost certainly not changed his mind since 1964. Voters were again seeking and finding in the new fellow what they found lacking. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, facing rough economic waters, was replaced by an empathetic Bill Clinton, who convincingly told voters, “I feel your pain.” Bush’s son George W. succeeded Clinton, but his invasion and occupation of Iraq, along with a badly botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, proved both unwise and unpopular to voters, and they were drawn to Barack Obama’s obvious intellect, eloquence and anti-war position — finding again what was missing in the president.
Voters, after a first Donald Trump term, will value in their 2020 decision a public record of achievement, proof that the next president has actually worked successfully across the political divide with people on the other side. Voters will prize the candidate with a mature temperament, a sense of humor — including an ability to laugh at himself or herself — genuine curiosity and, yes, lifelong personal friends.
In the 1974 New York gubernatorial race, underdog Rep. Hugh Carey, with an earned reputation as an effective public servant, upset his heavily favored Democratic primary opponent and the Republican incumbent with a credibly memorable campaign line: “This year, before they tell you what they want to do, make them show you what they’ve done.” New York 1974 could well be pre-echoes of America in 2020.