WASHINGTON – Get your face on TV and write a book: Check. Start meeting the big money people: Check. Visit Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina – Israel, too: Check.
Deny any of this has to do with running for president: Check.
For politicians planning or tempted to run for the presidency in 2016, the to-do list is formidable. What’s striking is how methodically most of them are plowing through it while they pretend nothing of the sort is going on.
Somehow, it has been decreed that politicians who fancy themselves presidential timber must wear a veil concealing the nakedness of their ambition. They must let the contours show through, however – more and more over time – while hoping everyone doesn’t tire of the tease.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, among others, are hewing closely to the scripted chores of soon-to-runs. Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are among those coming out with a book, almost a perquisite these days, while otherwise diverting from the usual path of preparation, for reasons that make strategic sense for them (and, you never know, could merely reflect indecision).
There is so much to do: Polish a record, for those in office; network with central constituencies of the party; take a serious stab at social media; start dealing with pesky baggage; and get going with a shadow campaign, which can mean bringing on national advisers, powering up a political action committee, or both. The little-knowns must get better known. The well-knowns must shape how people know them.
Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana say it’s crazy to be preparing for a campaign this soon.
If so, then Christie, Jindal and the whole lot of them are crazy.
Paul is going full steam on prep, making all the necessary moves (visits to New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina among them), while stating his only motive is to help the Republican Party grow. This, despite hard-line tactics in the Senate that do not resemble outreach to GOP factions other than his own.
Still, he’s been more upfront than most in acknowledging the possibility of a presidential campaign. Rubio, for one, claims such a campaign hasn’t crossed his mind even as he’s been running one, in all but name, at least since he darted into Iowa mere days after the 2012 election. Among Democrats, O’Malley now is openly talking about a 2016 race.
Everything Clinton does, short of brushing her teeth, is parsed for presidential campaign meaning. If her brand of toothpaste were known, that would be factored in the punditry, too. “I have absolutely no plans to run,” she says, turning to the most time-worn dodge, which persuades no one, including the supporters and donors who raised more than $1 million in June alone without any discouragement from her.
Happily for hopefuls, much of what they do as public officials is multipurpose, giving them a veneer of deniability even if no one believes it.
Vice President Joe Biden chats up people from key primary states and Democratic interest groups, but, hey, that’s just Joe the king of schmooze, right?
Christie staged a national fundraising tour this summer, swelling coffers for what’s expected to be a cakewalk to a second term as governor but, more important, making the coast-to-coast money connections he’d need for a Republican presidential race. Many could-be candidates travel to raise money for others, similarly introducing themselves to donors for their own potential benefit down the road.
Rare is the presidential prospect who hasn’t been to Israel, the New Hampshire of the Middle East, small in size but big as a touchstone of U.S politics, and it’s easy for a senator to find reasons to go. Paul and Rubio did early this year. Governors pad thin foreign policy resumes with trade missions or other events abroad, as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker did with a summer visit to China. Christie made Israel his first overseas trip as governor last year. O’Malley made a return visit in April.
Many of these people have positions in party organizations or governors associations that make a trip to New Hampshire or a splashy speech in California look like something other than an effort to grease their own wheels for 2016. That’s especially handy for governors, who risk flak at home if seen preening for a national audience. That hasn’t stopped Christie, though, from going for laughs on late-night talk shows or agreeing to a sitcom stint this fall on Michael J. Fox’s new show.
Walker got to preen at home this summer, hosting the National Governors Association annual meeting in Milwaukee. He says he won’t think about running for president until the 2014 governor’s election is over. No one believes him. Notably, he won’t commit to serving all four years if he wins another term.
Both Walker and Jindal are introducing themselves to South Carolina conservatives in a fundraising visit for Gov. Nikki Haley in late August.
Not all prospective candidates have to jump through all the hoops of campaign preparation, at least not this soon. After traveling more than 1 million miles as secretary of state, Clinton can sit on a couch with impunity for a while. She’s coming out of a quiet spell with plans for more speeches, some highly paid to bring in personal income.
By now Biden also has been everywhere, gotten to know everyone and had something to say about everything under the sun.
That includes his own future. To GQ magazine: “I can die a happy man never having been president of the United States of America.” That’s the veil.
“But it doesn’t mean I won’t run.” The tease.
Says former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “My thinking is not to think about it for a year.”
Meantime he’s appeared on all five Sunday TV talk shows on one day in March, served as keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference that month, spoken in South Carolina in April and returned in the summer for a party thrown by a leading Republican bundler of donations. This, after speaking in Iowa last year. His platforms are his 2013 book on immigration and his prominent advocacy on overhauling education.
The outlier in this group is Cuomo — like father, like son.
The governor is writing a book to come out next year that is said to reflect “profound moments” of his first term and “a full and frank account” of his private life, the perfect vanity project to get his ideas before a national audience, deal with post-divorce personal baggage on his own terms and generate the buzz that others who may run already are seeking.
For now, he’s staying close to home, skipping the usual networking, avoiding the national airwaves and keeping the veil decidedly opaque. When Democrats held their national convention in Charlotte, N.C., last year, Cuomo went to the city but skipped the spectacle, choosing instead a side event for New York delegates at a local hotel.
This, from the son of Hamlet on the Hudson, the label attached to Mario Cuomo when he sent mixed signals about his intentions in 1988 and 1992. “I have no plans and no plans to make plans,” the elder Cuomo said over and over, finally opting both times not to go for the Democratic nomination.
Family considerations tend to be a smoke screen when raised, as they often are, by politicians deciding whether to run for office. It’s a safe bet Bush will decide whether to run based on factors other than his mother Barbara’s comment that “we’ve had enough Bushes.” And no one was thrown off the scent when Christie told David Letterman his family voted 6-0 against his running in 2012.
After all, Mitt Romney had a family meeting, too, producing a 10-2 vote against a 2012 candidacy. He voted no, along with the majority, but history beckoned, as the family told it, and that straw poll was lost in the wind of his 2012 campaign.