The 2016 Presidential Conversations Taking Place Right Now
What's on the minds of potential White House candidates tonight.
This story is co-authored by National Journal columnist Ron Fournier and ABC News special correspondent Matthew Dowd. Dowd has worked in Democratic and Republican campaigns for 30 years, including as chief campaign strategist for Bush-Cheney 2004.
In hotel suites across America, the nation's most talented and ambitious politicians are huddling with their entourages—nervous smiles and high-fives as Tuesday night's election results put them into position to make a most profound decision: whether to run for the presidency.
We don't fully know what's happening in those rooms, but three decades of campaign strategy and coverage give us a pretty good idea. First, most of these men and women desperately want to be part of a presidential race. The candidates are competition junkies who've always wondered what it would be like to wield the Constitution's greatest powers. Their advisers consider electing a president the ultimate professional achievement—the key to fame, wealth, and influence.
Second, there's a higher purpose for most of these people. Sure, some may lose sight of their calling once in office, but for just about everybody in these rooms, the fundamental ambition is to make the country better—and to make history doing so.
Third, most of these people are closer to saying "no" than you think. Despite conventional wisdom, which would have you believe that the dithering is false modesty, most potential presidential candidates are a buffet of conflict.
In these suites is where raw ambition meets reality—the dark secrets, inner doubts, and hidden roadblocks that might be coming into view. These are just a few that we know about:
A reluctant spouse: Bill and Hillary Clinton's mutual ambition is unique in American politics. In many political marriages, the candidate's spouse is a reluctant partner. The concerns are often benign, such as those shared by the two governors we know—one current, one former—whose wives don't want their kids' lives upended in 2016 and beyond. The concerns can be more malignant. Maybe a spouse or child is hiding an embarrassing secret—not only from the public, but maybe from the candidate as well.
Hidden agenda (Candidate): Not every politician publicly mulling the presidency seriously expects to win. Some get into the race to nurse more modest ambitions—higher speaking fees, TV contracts, book deals and, of course, ego stroking. Early in the 2000 campaign cycle, Fournier arranged to meet a GOP presidential candidate for coffee. He wanted to get to know the candidate a bit before covering him, so Fournier suggested they talk confidentially and about anything other than politics—their families, sports, and any shared interests. The candidate kept steering the conversation back to the presidential campaign, and after growing frustrated with Fournier's refusal to bite, the guy blurted: "You know I don't have a chance in hell to win. I know I don't have a chance in hell to win. But could you at least play along?"
Hidden agenda (Consultant): There's a reason why hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on television advertising each cycle—in amounts far exceeding TV's relative effectiveness in an era of digital targeting. It's this: Consultants get a big cut of TV ad buys. While that may be the most pernicious conflict that hampers candidate-and-consultant relationships, it's by no means the only one. Over the years, a handful of campaign advisers suggested that they were pulling their punches against a primary opponent, hoping to land a job "if my guy loses." A final example: The best sources of leaks are advisers who place a higher value on their own reputations than their candidates'. No campaign lacks a few such suckers.
Fighting advisers: In 2008, both John McCain and Barack Obama knew they were riding herd on talented, mercurial staffs that might be prone to fratricide. While Obama kept his team focused on McCain, the advisers on McCain's side turned on each other. It was as ugly as it was predictable. Wherever Hillary Clinton is debating her future Tuesday night, her loose coalition of advisers must wonder whether they're going to help elect the nation's first woman president, or be part of the second Clinton implosion—beaten a second time amid infighting.
Self-doubt: Bill Clinton is the most talented politician of his generation, a singularly ambitious and self-confident man. Yet he had his doubts. In 1991, he walked up to a group of Arkansas political reporters and nodded toward a clutch of East Coast journalists who were in Little Rock for some event. He asked, "Do you think I can do it?" It wasn't clear whether he was asking about his capacity to run, to win, or to serve—or all of the above. Among those thinking of running in 2016, we're personally aware of more than one likely GOP candidate who honestly fear they're not ready to serve.
Doubting parents: Jeb Bush's mother has expressed doubts about him running. "I think this is a … great country, and if we can't find more than two or three families to run for high office, that's silly, because there are great governors and great eligible people to run," Barbara Bush said in January. "And I think the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes—there's just more families than that." While she may be the most famous parent with doubts, she can't be the only mother or dad whispering cautions.
Earnest young operatives/staffers: These suites harbor the dreams of devoted young operatives who really want to change America and have fallen in love with their candidates. Their hearts and heads are totally in it, and they're the hopeful optimists we need in politics. Soon, they will see a reality of politics that is not apparent to them this night. Some will grow stronger and wiser because of the realities of the campaign ahead and the hurts they will feel; others will get their hearts broken and become the cynical folks who no longer dream of a better way.
Candidate's secret: They all got 'em. That shouldn't be a surprise because we all harbor secrets that we wouldn't want exposed to a 24/7 media cycle. Clinton famously shied away from the 1988 presidential campaign because his chief of staff feared "bimbo eruptions." We can almost guarantee that in these hotel suites tonight, various donors, consultants, and other hangers-on are hoping to get the chance to pry.
Some might summon the nerve to repeat a conversation as old as politics. "Whatever you don't want people to know about, people will find out about," the presidential hopeful is warned. "Tell me now. Please, tell me now."
This article appears in the November 6, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.