Don't be surprised if, come November of 2008, voters are choosing between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush for president.
But how can that be? Jeb's not running.
Well, he isn't running now, but the new, front-loaded primary system may, counterintuitively, allow him to enter the race late as a "white knight" rescuing Republicans from a morass of unhappiness and indecision.
The fully frontloaded system replaces not the slow unfolding of primary and caucus states common through, say, 1976, but an already semi-frontloaded system instead. It is the latter, the semi, that produced overly quick ends to the nomination battles -- but the fully frontloaded system may do just the opposite.
The reason the semi served to quickly winnow the presidential field is that it effectively anointed one particular candidate as the nearly unstoppable frontrunner by virtue of results in three states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Iowa would usually put forth one winner, New Hampshire -- jealous of its "first in the nation" prerogatives -- would put forth another, and then South Carolina would break the tie. The big jumble of staggered primaries in the weeks thereafter would come just at the right time to validate the momentum earned in South Carolina, and only a brief denouement was usually needed before the losing candidates acknowledged that the jig was up.
But in 2008, with a whopping 19 states, including mammoth California, moving their primaries, the Feb. 2 South Carolina match won't seem so decisive because everybody will know that the big delegate haul will come just three days later. And because all of the major candidates will be fighting heavily across such a wide range of states, the odds are high that each major candidate will win at least several of those 19 states. If, say, John McCain wins California and Arizona, and maybe another, but Mitt Romney follows a New Hampshire win with Feb. 5 wins in Michigan, Utah, and Colorado, and another one or two, while Rudy Giuliani takes Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and Tennessee, and Mike Huckabee wins his home state of Arkansas and Sam Brownback carries home-state Kansas...well, then, who exactly is the front-runner?
RATHER THAN PROVIDING UNSTOPPABLE momentum to any one candidate, in other words, the widespread voting on Feb. 5 could serve to keep all three "major" candidates and even a couple of minor ones alive. Nobody could claim a mandate, the vitriol would continue to grow, and the dissatisfaction already being voiced by conservatives might take on pandemic proportions.
Meanwhile, a number of states may have qualifying dates for candidates or delegates that post-date Feb. 5. Nine states still won't vote until May. A white night with a big enough name could conceivably jump in the race, sweep all the later contests, and lay claim to be the candidate of consensus and unity. Think of another president's brother, Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and you get the idea.
Not only that, but the white knight could pick up the endorsements, and presumably the delegates, of the minor candidates as they fall by the wayside. Huckabee's Arkansans and Brownback's Kansans could both shift to the knight the moment those candidates drop out. Ditto for McCain's Arizonans and Californians if, after eight more big primaries on March 4, he finds himself to be clearly in third place among the three major contestants.
Suddenly, the scenario for the knight's victory doesn't look quite so far-fetched.
Of course, this all assumes that we're talking about one helluva knight. Somebody with major name ID, with access to large amounts of money and organizational might at a moment's notice, and with a solid reputation across the Republican philosophical spectrum.
Of course, Jeb Bush qualifies on all counts.
BUT WHY WOULD HE RUN when the name Bush is so unpopular these days?
Perhaps because a lot can change in a year. Ask George H. W. Bush, he of the 91 percent approval rating in 1991, about how fast political fortunes can change. What if, by late winter of next year, the vaunted troop surge in Iraq is seen to have been a major success? What if the continued over-reaching by Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha makes President George W. Bush look good by comparison, just as Bill Clinton looked good when compared with the caricature Newt Gingrich allowed to be drawn of himself?
Still, you might argue, what about the inevitable backlash against political dynasticism? How could Americans possibly be expected to choose a Bush for the third time in four presidencies?
In actuality, though, 2008 may be the best year possible to overcome the argument against dynasties. After all, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the anti-dynasticism argument will cut both ways. What better time for Jeb Bush to argue that a political inheritance should not be a disqualifier than when his opponent's entire career as an elected official is seen as a political inheritance?
All of which explains why the frontloaded system plays right into Jeb Bush's hands.
This isn't a prediction that Bush will be the Republican nominee, by the way, but only an explanation why he could be. And it's not a case of my own wishes being father to the thought: My choice for president is SEC Chairman Chris Cox -- but he's not running. Neither, unfortunately, is the most eloquent conservative speaker on today's scene, White House press secretary Tony Snow. Oh, well....
The point is not that conservatives should wait around for Jeb Bush to come to the rescue, nor that we should begin secretly plotting the Floridian's ascendance. It is to say, though, that just as campaign finance reforms always have unintended consequences, so too might a frontloaded primary calendar. Conservatives should right now be "gaming out" the various possibilities, so they can be a decisive influence in the final choice of a nominee.
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