Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton? Paul Ryan or Joe Biden? You weren’t a pundit in good standing unless you broke into last weekend’s ceremonials to speculate on who might be taking the oath four years from now.
What a waste of time. With rare exceptions, the next president isn’t imaginable four years before. Go through the list of the past half-century: Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy. Except for the two Bushes—about whom more in a second—none would have been predicted four years previous.
In January 2005, Hillary Clinton was the clear frontrunner for the next Democratic nomination, and the likely next president. Barack Obama? Nobody was even polling his name in 2005. When he began to show up in polls in 2006, he lagged behind Hillary Clinton by more than 25 points among Democrats.
In January 1989, wise people almost unanimously expected New York governor Mario Cuomo to walk away with the Democratic nomination in 1992. Bill Clinton? He was the Arkansas governor with a zipper problem, much mocked among pundits for delivering an overlong speech to the Democratic convention in 1988.
Ronald Reagan was not an obscure person in January 1977. But he was generally considered to be washed up. His insurgent challenge to the incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries had opened the way to Jimmy Carter’s election in the general. Post-election, he seemed too divisive and too old ever to run again. The smart money looked to younger men, like former Texas governor John Connally (a huge favorite of big-money donors in the 1980 cycle) and former CIA director George Bush.
As for Carter, in January 1973, he was still three years away even from becoming “Jimmy Who?” (the nickname journalists would award him after he won the Iowa caucuses in 1976).
After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory of 1964, nobody would have expected any Republican to win in 1968—least of all Richard Nixon, who had quit the scene after his defeat in the 1962 California governor’s race muttering, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Ditto January 1961, when a young, vigorous Jack Kennedy seemed likely to govern for eight full years, after which his powerless vice president Lyndon Johnson would be heading to the retirement home. In January 1957, Kennedy himself was a first-term senator, little respected by his Senate colleagues, passed over for the Democrats’ vice-presidential nomination in 1956, and mistrusted by his party because of his family friendship with the disgraced demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
As mentioned, the Bushes are the exception. It was a reasonable guess in January 1985 that President Reagan would be succeeded by his vice president, and another reasonable guess in January 1997 that the popular governor of Texas with the famous last name would win his party’s next nomination. But the Bush way is not the usual way, for the simple reason that political and economic events move fast and bounce in unexpected directions.
In January 2005, Iraq had just held democratic elections. Who would have expected Hillary Clinton’s pro-war vote to do her so much harm in 2008? In January 1977 the U.S. economy was recovering briskly from the severe 1974-75 recession. Who would have expected the Carter presidency to be battered by even worse economic troubles in the months ahead?
Yes, conceded, a lot of next-in-line guys have won nominations: Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John McCain, Mitt Romney. But predictable candidates have an unhappy way of meeting unpredictable events.
And what is unpredictable now is ... everything that will be most relevant come 2016.