Bill Clinton, tied down by a political scrum late in his first term as president, once famously had to insist that the president was “relevant.” The 1995 remark came the year after Republicans had stormed Congress with their “contract with America” doctrine.
Historians would look back with awe, scratching their heads that Clinton felt compelled to make the remark. It seemed to show how low he’d felt he’d sunk as Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, grabbed more headlines in Washington than the White House.
Clinton would rebound. After emerging from the White House for speeches in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, he felt newly energized to take on Republicans when they threatened to shut down the government in a budget impasse. Polls supported him, and he cruised to a re-election victory and a second term in which the “Monica factor” didn’t seem to dent his public approval.
Some things don’t change much. Now 17 years later, President Barack Obama and Republicans are still battling over much the same issues they did then, though without the distraction of an intern.
No president would now wonder publicly if he or she is relevant, but this one must wonder what it takes to unravel a divided capital city. A president can say all he wants, and even win an election, but some things don’t change much. A Republican House is one of them.
Unless Obama has a trick up his sleeve involving the use of executive powers to bypass the “fiscal cliff,” he must sometimes wonder just how relevant he is around the halls of Congress, where the allies he has in the Senate aren’t duplicated in the House.
Though we spend lots of time speculating about who’s going to run in 2016, history suggests that we wouldn’t recognize the names of the front-runners four years in advance. Few outside of Arkansas knew Bill Clinton before he emerged nationally in 1992.
We had the same experience with George W. Bush in 2000. We didn’t really know the Texas governor until he emerged as a bipartisan builder of alliances in that year.
It doesn’t take much to cause a short-term political wave. In the spring of 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War, nobody was given a chance of beating George H. W. Bush. But things change a lot over short periods of time. Americans are notoriously fickle. Rarely does their effective political memory exceed 90 days, so the only thing that matters in a presidential candidacy happens after July. If Mitt Romney had the sense to cough up his “47 percent” remark so early this year, it would have been remembered by Election Day as little more than a math issue.
George H. W. Bush was upended by the economy in 1992, and his seeming inability to recognize the problem. Historians often debate whether presidents can ever overcome economic cycles. Them seem to arrive and ebb on their own schedule. They don’t care who’s running things. Any candidate running in 2008 would have been stung by the recession. Anyone running this year could anticipate a recovery in 2012 and 2013.
Is the president relevant? Can one turn the economy in the short term? Economists might say they can snip around the fringes, but that consumer confidence will determine the outcome and we are a fickle bunch of spenders and debtors while our leaders are mere cheerleaders.
Will Chris Christie last as long as he must to remain a favored political figure by 2016? If Hillary Clinton can’t be relevant, will she even be interested in the top job? How many newly elected young politicians, set to take office next month, might emerge after the recent election, or even after the 2010 midterms? Barack Obama had only a short stint in the Senate before asking the public if his time had come?
Consider the role of accidents in politics — particularly unfortunate ones. Skeletons fell from the closet in droves when the Republicans were picking (or not) a winning candidate for 2012. You’d have thought politicians might have the sense to run opposition research on themselves, so they’d learn what might trip them up.
No matter how eloquent, fetching speeches make no difference alongside the disastrous ones (recall Romney’s 47 percent). Politicians might do better just to shut up — though most are advised today to do exactly that in the name of “staying on message.”
Four years is an eternity in politics. It’s a few fiscal cliffs away. As a collective country, we ran up a host of bills that many of us now don’t want to pay. We’re a bunch of collective deadbeats, who engage in wars and entitlements without considering how we’ll pay for them, whether by cutting or taxing. We think as a country much like shops lusting after Christmas shoppers hope their customers do; buy on impulse and pay later — if ever.
There’s a lot to amuse us about the political watch. Watching a scandal eat up a candidate often serves as entertainment with no cover charge. How many will lurk on the way to 2016?
It’s still an odds-on bet that we wouldn’t now recognize the name of the next president of the U.S. — whether he or she is relevant or not.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.