The big political news in Washington today was Mark Warner’s surprise announcement that he was not running for president in 2008, citing concerns about the impact of a campaign on his family. Naturally, hundreds of political operatives and would-be pundits got on the phone with each other to see if anyone knew the “real reason” for Warner’s decision. But best I can tell at this point, we should all take Warner’s word for it that he and his wife had agreed on this fall as a failsafe point, and after taking a long look at what a presidential run–or for that matter, a victory–would do to their lives, took a pass. This happens pretty often, actually. Sure, there are always some Big Dogs in Washington (e.g., Wilbur Mills, John Connally, Phil Gramm, Orrin Hatch) who delude themselves into thinking they are presidential timber, until they crash and burn on the campaign trail. But almost every cycle, there are potentially strong candidates who just don’t run. Until (and for that matter, after) he finally ran in 1980, Ted Kennedy was perenially regarded as a proto-candidate. Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn famously didn’t run in 1988 and 1992. Bob Kerrey surprised a lot of people when he announced he wouldn’t run in 2000. And sometimes candidates go back and forth. Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan both foreswore a run in 1968, before jumping in late. And in 1992, Ross Perot set a new standard for irresolution by running full-tilt for president, withdrawing, and then re-entering the race. The most renowned statement of non-candidacy was, of course, William Tecumsah Sherman’s terse announcement prior to the 1884 presidential election that “if drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” Indeed, my former boss Sam Nunn often avoided a definitive statement of non-candidacy by remarking: “As a Georgian, I would never make a Sherman Statement.”But my personal favorite in this genre was Fritz Mondale’s comment, after abandoning a 1972 run, that he “didn’t want to spend the next year living in Holiday Inns” (this was back in the day, before the willingness to become a quasi-resident of Iowa, and consume vast quantities of that state’s fine pork products, became the threshold issue for potential candidates). Reminded of this disclaimer when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination in1976, Mondale allowed as how the Holiday Inn chain had made a lot of improvements in the intervening four years. Warner’s announcement of non-candidacy will not be the last of this cycle, but no one really knows who may drop out or drop in exactly when. I know very smart people who are convinced Hillary Clinton won’t run, and/or that Al Gore will, against all the current evidence. Among Republicans, you hear that Rudy Guiliani is definitely in, or definitely out. The only sure drop-out among the frequently named is George Allen, whether or not he survives his rolling disaster of a Senate re-election campaign. But I think it’s both wise and decent when a potential candidate drops out to give him or her the benefit of the doubt and accept that mere personal reasons are always sufficient to justify a statement of non-candidacy. For all the allure of the power and influence associated with becoming the Leader of the Free World, getting there is a brutal business indeed, and as President Al Gore and President John Kerry can tell you, in our system there ain’t no consolation prizes for valiant near-misses.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.