Smash That Crystal Ball

Article excerpt

Byline: David Frum

The next president could come out of nowhere.

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). …