SHORTCUTS

The Cape Coral News-Press has a piece on Craig Miller, an unheralded candidate for the Republican nomination in the Florida Senate race. I'd call it "interesting" if not for the fear of implying that Miller himself is worth thinking about for more than 30 seconds. What he represents, however, is telling.

1. Miller, owner of the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse chain, touts himself using one of the more moronic phrases in circulation in modern politics: "I am a business person. That will trump a career politician in 2012. I am the only one in this race who has run a business." This line, a favorite of the Mitt Romneys and Ron Johnsons of the world, has always puzzled me. What is this supposed to mean? How does this make a candidate more fit to hold office? So you've run a business, Craig. Great. So has the guy who dry cleans your clothes. Should he be in the Senate too? Unsurprisingly, the Venn diagram of people who use this phrase fully eclipses those who think "Government should be run like a business!" Equally unsurprisingly, they all quickly discover that it doesn't quite work that way. I could see the analogy for an executive – maybe – but for a Senator?
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Yes Craig, the skills involved in opening a chain of steak restaurants is nearly identical to those necessary in the Senate. In fact being a Senator has been described by most who have held the office as "Much like being the owner of a chain of steakhouses."

2. He also touts his outsider status, which is nothing new. Running against Washington is a tactic as old as Washington. But is someone like Miller an outsider or simply an opportunist? One of the most prominent consequences of the Teabagging movement has been to catapult an untold number of complete yahoos into political prominence – Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Mike Lee, and so many more – without having to go through that pesky process of paying dues, making a name for themselves, and building a base of political support. Instead of outsiders, we have a bunch of people who see a shortcut to the top, a brief window of opportunity for crackpots to ride a wave of anger, ignorance, and resentment into positions of power. These people are a healthy mix of genuine lunatics – the kind of person you would avoid on the bus or at a party – and rich, arrogant assholes who know a crowd of suckers when they see one.

Very few members of Congress arrived with noble intentions, but this latest gaggle of businessmen-turned-Congressmen and crusaders against water fluoridation are even more crass than usual. The calculus appears quite simple: throw as much red meat as possible to the party base, sweep into office on a wave of anger and apathy, and spend the next X years lining your pockets and those of your allies while laughing at how easy it was.

POSTSCRIPT: And the punchline? "Miller’s tenure as chief executive officer of Ruth’s Chris ended in 2008 when he was forced to resign amid falling profits and tumbling stock prices."

HORSE RACES

The media love elections. They are already in full saturation campaign coverage mode more than 14 months prior to the general election. In theory this should be a positive. After all, people like me are constantly complaining about the lack of political coverage and general substance in the news. And here it is: months and months of unrelenting attention paid to the presidential election. Great!

Unfortunately the media love elections because they are good for ratings, and they are good for ratings because the media have turned elections into a sporting event. Instead of Marv Albert telling us which team is leading and trailing throughout the basketball game, we have blow-dried anchors constantly reporting poll results to let us know "Who's ahead?" even though the answer is almost always "no one" once margin of error is taken into account. Instead of broken down, concussed ex-NFL players giving color commentary while scribbling on the Telestrator, we have washed up campaign consultants (Paul Begala, Bill Bennett, Alex Castellanos, etc.) letting us know What It All Means and What Voters Want. Academics call the excessive emphasis on day-to-day poll results "Horse Race coverage", a phenomenon that eliminates issues and reduces most coverage to reporting how various groups or individuals reacted to a campaign event. The latter – the instant big-picture analysis phenomenon – is just a lazy, stupid way of boiling the election down to a 25 word explanation for lazy, stupid viewers.

These phenomena have been affecting the way elections are covered for years. They are beginning to affect the election itself.

The Ames (aka Iowa) Straw Poll is the dumbest event in politics by a country mile, even compared to legendary shitshows like CNN/YouTube debates, the Thanksgiving sparing of a turkey, and the national conventions. Nothing says Scientific Poll quite like a $30 fee to participate. And nothing says Representative Sample quite like 15,000 non-randomly selected Iowans. This thing is so stupid that a candidate could dramatically alter the results by investing a pittance (in the context of modern campaigns) in a bunch of tour buses and admission tickets for the straw poll gathering. About $50,000 could easily bring 1000-1200 ringers to boost a candidate's showing, which is amazing when we realize how little distance in raw vote totals separates the candidates.

1. Michele Bachmann: 4,823
2. Ron Paul: 4,671
3. Tim Pawlenty: 2,293
4. Rick Santorum: 1,657
5. Herman Cain: 1,456
6. Rick Perry: 718
7. Mitt Romney: 567
8. Newt Gingrich: 385
9. Jon Huntsman: 69
10. Thad McCotter: 35

Yep, for a minimal investment, Herman Cain or Rick Santorum could have finished a strong third. Instead, the real third place finisher – Tim Pawlenty – quit. He quit the race because he finished third in this utterly ridiculous non-event. High school student council elections are more rigorous than this thing. The organizers auction off floor space to the highest-bidding campaign and candidates bribe attendees with barbecues and whatever else they feel like giving away.

I try not to watch much cable news these days, but what I have seen since the end of the debt ceiling "drama" has relentlessly hyped the Straw Poll. Tbe media have managed to turn this non-event – previously won by the likes of Pat Robertson – into a crucial barometer of candidate viability. Despite the silly rules that make this neither a real election nor a real poll. Despite the fact that Rick Perry was not on the ballot and Romney, who won the Poll in 2008, basically sat it out.

It is possible that there are behind-the-scenes issues that prompted T-Paw to quit the race. I'd like to think so, because the idea that hype could turn this organized silliness into a meaningful component of the selection process for the president of the United States is too depressing. If he had money trouble or simply didn't see himself being able to compete in the crowded field, why wait until the day after the Straw Poll to withdraw? Would another 1000 votes in this farce have made a difference?

The media have an agenda in our elections, and it is to fill airtime profitably. Election fever drives ratings and ad rates. The more mini-elections or "big events" they can create, the more they benefit. Something like the Straw Poll feeds into the pathology of 24-hour election coverage, providing a story that can be breathlessly anticipated, endlessly hyped, reported with numbers and rankings despite the fact that it is ultimately meaningless.

But hey, Bachmann's #1! How could 4,800 Iowans be wrong?

CLOSET'S GETTING FULL

It pains me to acknowledge Michele Bachmann's existence twice in a fortnight but this is too amusing to ignore.

Thanks to an enterprising "undercover" amateur journalist has exposed the "Pray away the gay" clinic Bachmann operates in Minnesota, which I am stunned to learn is a state that allows people to practice counseling/therapy/etc. without a license. That works out well for "Dr." Bachmann, whose credentials include a Ph.D., the dissertation for which cannot be located (in contrast to the dissertations of people who attend real schools, which are available at libraries) from an online school called Union College. The most obvious hypocrisy is that Dr. Bachmann's "practice" received over $150,000 in Medicaid payments last year alone, although as Ag Subsidy Michele can tell you the Bachmann family is no stranger to railing against the federal dole while cashing as many checks from Uncle Sam as possible.

Marcus is but one of many practitioners in the "reparative therapy" industry, which has all the medical credibility and supporting evidence of phrenology. Speaking of hypocrisy, I began to wonder why he has such a strong interest in making ex-gays out of young gay men. Then I learned a little more about Marcus Bachmann. Watch this clip from MSNBC, including both the radio comments from Bachmann and video of he and his "wife" dancing around on stage:

OK.

Look. The on-air folks at MSNBC were forced to tiptoe around this for what I can only assume are both legal and ethical reasons. I am not similarly constrained. So, if I may be blunt: if Marcus Bachmann was any more of a queen, he would be on British money. That guy could not be any gayer if he shot rainbows out of his open palms like some kind of Spider Man. I have seen Mardi Gras parades that were not as gay as he is. He contains more DNA samples than the average crime lab.

This election season is going to be fun after all. I wait with bated breath for the cops, the media, or the average person with a smartphone to catch Marcus behind Gay 90s (if I remember my Twin Cities gay bars correctly) with his pants around his ankles while two "confused" teen runaways give him the business. It was nice of him to set up that clinic, though. He must really love Jesus to willingly spend so much time around a constant, ever-changing parade of emotionally fragile young gay men. Praise Him.

OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING

So Michele Bachmann, proud Christadictorian of her class at Regent University, apparently thought it was a good idea to sign on to some no-name Christian right group's anti-gay marriage manifesto. The Iowa-based organization, Family Leader, wants candidates to pledge to be faithful to their spouses, "vigorously defend" opposite marriage, and oppose a grab bag of other things (porn, the imposition of Sharia law in Iowa) just to remind everyone that they are nuttier than my shit after a day at the cashew farm.

Dozens of news networks, newspapers, and blogs have run this story; the link I provide above is from the ABC News website, a generic mainstream source of news if ever one was. It's very interesting that the ABC News item, like nearly every mainstream news report on this story, omits mention of the following part of the Family Leader manifesto:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.

I…see.

I've been expecting the Normalization of Deviance process to begin with Bachmann and it appears that her much-praised performance at the first GOP primary debate (inasmuch as "Wow, she doesn't sound nearly as bonkers as she is!" is praise) lit the fuse. Beaten into terrified submission by Fox News ratings and forty years of right wing pant-shitting over That Librul Media, the mainstream news industry treats Republican lunatics with kid gloves once it becomes clear that he or she is a "serious" – defined in this instance as financially and politically viable – candidate. If Michele Bachmann is a legit contender for the nomination then it's imperative to give her Fair, Balanced treatment, which is conservative for going out of their way to take her seriously and make her look respectable. Whatever needs to be overlooked in that process is acceptable collateral damage to reality.

It will be interesting to see going forward how often the Sunday Bobblehead crowd presses her on all of the truly, magnificently insane shit she has said and supported over the years. The Bachmann team is in overdrive trying to backtrack some of her previous statements and positions but in the internet age no candidate can effectively soften the kind of statements she has put out for public consumption…unless of course the Beltway media simply decide not to bring it up, instead letting her set the agenda out of desperate fear of being accused of Librul Bias. Or perhaps they honestly believe that any individual who can contend for a major party nomination is to be taken seriously by definition, which creates an environment wherein whatever brand of Crazy happens to have the GOP in its thrall at any given moment becomes the new normal.

B SQUAD

If I was a Republican who firmly believed that Barack Obama is destroying America and Must Be Stopped in 2012, I would have spent the majority of the CNN New Hampshire GOP Primary debate on Monday night sliding the barrel of a gun into my mouth and slowly talking myself out of it before repeating the process at five minute intervals. Since I'm not a Republican, I spent those two hours of my life (which unfortunately I can never get back) in absolute shock that there is a non-negligible chance that one of these drooling idiots will be the next president of the United States.

Three observations:

1. It's stunningly clear in the side-by-side comparison that Mitt Romney is the only one of these candidates with half of a functioning brain in his head. I think he's wrong about just about everything (more on that momentarily) but god forbid a tanking economy turns 2012 into an "anyone but the incumbent" election and we get stuck with one of these people. Romney might be a douchebag, but better a d-bag with access to the nuclear codes than one of these other vacant-eyed sociopaths.

2. This debate had nothing to do with answering questions or taking positions – it was Kowtow to the Donor Base, Evangelicals, and Tea Party Night. Anyone else enjoy the surreal sequence in which Pawlenty, Romney, and Bachmann tried to out-tax-cut one another? Romney proposed taking the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%. T-Paw one-upped him with 15% last week. Tonight, Bachmann threw down to the tune of 9% (with no capital gains tax, estate tax, or AMT…and a tax increase on the lowest bracket). It was like watching three children fight over who loves mommy more. All seven debaters participated in a spirited round of "No, I hate Obamacare the most!" followed by the requisite "Who is the most pro-life pro-lifer?" sparring match. The candidates, sans Bachmann, didn't even look like their hearts were in any of this. Romney and T-Paw in particular had that McCain 2008 look of resignation, the one that shouts "I have to say this but very little of me believes it." CNN's crowd shots were a great reminder of who these candidates were trying to impress on Monday evening:

Dance faster, monkeys. The bloated plutocrats are not impressed.

3. The GOP analysts and talking heads are buzzing about a "big opening" (insert joke here) for Rick Perry. First, that's little more than a polite way of saying "Wow, these people are just terrible." Second, Perry is quickly turning into Fred Thompson 2012, the maybe-candidate on whom the party can pin its hopes of saving Republicans from this terrible field. In practice a Rick Perry candidacy would probably work about as well as Thompson's "campaign" did in 2008. The party faithful are just using him as a blank slate on which to project their fantasies of a perfect candidate; in reality he is a deeply flawed politician whose bullshit flies in Lubbock but doesn't scale up well to the national stage. And don't forget that every other candidate has a 2+ year head start on him in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states. The louder the drumbeat gets for a Knight in shining armor to save the party, the poorer the odds that any such person will actually materialize. If Perry thought he would walk away with the nomination he'd be in.

God help us all.

SENATE 2012: SON OF A…

We've already talked quite a bit about the upcoming presidential race. It may turn out to be less than enthralling, though, if the GOP nominates a dud and Obama finds himself on solid ground as the campaign heats up. The odds that the race will be competitive have increased with the seemingly accidental anointing-by-attrition of Mitt Romney, who is both the only remaining viable contender and the only one with a realistic shot at the incumbent. Regardless, the Senate races may end up being the more interesting story in 2012.

Way back in 2006** I noted that the terrain was unfavorable for the GOP because it was forced to defend a considerably greater number of Senate seats compared to the Democrats. Well, given the success of Democratic candidates that year it is now the Democrats who are disadvantaged by high levels of exposure in 2012. There are 33 races scheduled. Retirement is taking six Democrats but only two Republicans (both in safe seats). Of incumbents seeking reelection, the Democrats must defend 17 seats compared to only 8 for the Republicans. Obviously these numbers are subject to some change if additional incumbents retire, although most of the official announcements of candidacy have already been made.

The Democrats currently hold a 53 seat majority in the chamber including the two caucusing independents (with the high likelihood of replacing a retiring Joe Lieberman with a real Democrat). Most of the early analysis treats the loss of the chamber as a foregone conclusion. Is it?

Of the six retiring Democrats, one (Kent Conrad, ND) is a Republican lock. North Dakota's odd all-Democrat congressional delegation as late as 2009 was an anomaly the party could not expect to enjoy forever. That leaves 52.

In Nebraska, Ben Nelson is highly unlikely to be elected to a third term. The GOP field is weak but it may not matter in a state like Nebraska. Though Nelson is not 100% dead in the water, the vultures are circling. That leaves 51.

The four tightest, most exciting races this year will be a group of toss-up seats currently held by Democrats: WI (Kohl retirement), VA (Webb retirement), MT (Tester vs. Rehberg), and MO (Clare McCaskill). The Democrats would have to win three of those just to hold a 50-50 tie in the chamber, and that's not even counting additional races that are likely to be competitive like Florida (Bill Nelson), New Mexico (Bingaman retirement), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), and Ohio (Sherrod Brown). The odds of the Democrats winning seven or eight of the eight races mentioned here seem poor unless A) Obama somehow wins in a 2008-type landslide, or B) the Tea Party saves them by nominating unelectable tools in key races.

But wait! There are two Republican-held seats that will be a challenge to hold. Scott Brown must run for a full term in Massachusetts, and in a presidential election year his odds are not good – 60%+ of that state is going to be casting an Obama vote in all likelihood and Brown's seat is tenuous to begin with. Second, John Ensign's retirement in Nevada has set up a Congressman vs. Congresswoman race between Dean Heller (R) and Shelly Berkeley (D). That will be a barn burner, especially if Obama does well in Nevada again.

Republican moderates are getting primaried as well. In Indiana, Dick Lugar is a lock for re-election but Teatard Dick Mourdock is currently polling ahead for the GOP nomination. If Lugar is unseated the statewide race could be competitive. The same is true in Maine where Olympia Snowe has two Tea Party Express challengers. Neither will be a strong general election candidate.

In short, the Democrats are fighting a the war of 2012 on about 12 different fronts. It is unrealistic to expect that the party can prevail in so many tight races and toss-ups unless Obama somehow achieves a 1984-style blowout victory at the top of the ticket. That does not appear likely. At this early stage the odds are good that the Republicans will net a gain of at least four seats, giving them the Senate majority. If Obama returns to the White House alongside that outcome, we can expect gridlock on a biblical scale for at least two years. If the Senate and the White House both switch party control, then America can look forward to the kind of solid political leadership that Wisconsin and Florida have been enjoying since the 2010 midterms.

(**Holy shitballs. I have been writing this thing five times per week for eight years at this point. I can't tell if that shows impressive levels of commitment or if it's just pathetic.)

WHITE HORSE

Well, strike Mitch Daniels.

In a turn somewhat reminiscent of Colin Powell's refusal to run in 1996 (motivated largely by his wife's disdain for the idea) the Indiana Governor removed himself from the list of 2012 GOP contenders. Daniels appeared to be swayed by the "no" votes of his wife and children; I won't rehash all of the unsubstantiated rumors about the Daniels' marriage, but his wife was clearly of the opinion that it wouldn't be pleasant to litigate on the national stage. For the unaware, Daniels and his wife Cheri married in 1978 and divorced in the early 1990s. Then Cheri married some other guy before re-marrying Mitch in 1997. Tons of salacious theories about why they divorced are in circulation.

I still believe that the Secret Ay-Rab (Didn't realize that his grandparents are Syrian immigrants? Yeah, that probably would have "come up" in GOP primary campaigning) represented the best chance Republicans had to defeat Obama despite the fact that Daniels stood little chance of surviving the nomination process. Teabaggers would have torn him apart and religious conservatives are unlikely to have been swayed by his recent look-how-Jesusy-I-am grandstanding at the expense of Planned Parenthood. In the general election, though, his appeal could have been substantial.

Where does that leave the GOP field? Well, it's weaker. And it was already weak. Losing Huckabee and Daniels in rapid succession has left the party with few viable options. The biggest beneficiary of Daniels' exit has to be Tim Pawlenty, who now stands virtually unopposed in the "mainstream candidate who isn't Mitt Romney" role. T-Paw may have the appeal of white bread wadded up and dipped in tepid tap water, but if you're a moderate-ish Republican who can't overlook one of Romney's twin heresies – Mormonism and the Massachusetts health care reform law – you're really running out of options. Who else is there at this point? The Gingrich 2012 rollout has been a stunning failure on the level of the Edsel or Heaven's Gate. Ron Paul is a cult figure. Michelle Bachmann is mentally ill. Jon Huntsman has zero name recognition and twin heresies (Mormonism and working for the Obama administration) little different than Romney's.

A quick perusal of the available options makes it obvious why the GOP is starting to look around for a savior to come over the mountain riding a white horse. We saw this reaction in 2008 as well; when it became apparent in late 2007 that the field was terrible the Draft Fred Thompson drumbeat rose to a crescendo. Similarly, we are now starting to hear much more about "drafting" Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Rick Perry into the race. As Mr. Thompson proved in 2008, there are substantial problems with the Savior plan.

First, the candidate probably isn't as good as the panicky rank-and-file imagine him to be. Most other GOP elected officials are currently treating Ryan like he has leprosy; his defining attribute is a proposal to replace Medicare with a voucher and a mandate for Granny to find her own health insurance. Christie probably can't get re-elected in New Jersey and has the look and personality of a Sopranos extra. Perry's tired horseshit might play in Texas but unlike the previous Lone Star State Governor he can't even plausibly fake the centrist/moderate/compassionate conservatism persona. Everything you need to know about the field is encapsulated perfectly in the fact that these three knuckleheads are the "saviors".

Second, it's already getting late for someone to jump into the race. The Iowa Caucuses are six months away. The candidates who figure to be competitive in January have already laid the groundwork for a campaign and have boots on the ground in key primary states. Thompson proved that it's remarkably difficult – let's go ahead and say impossible – to throw together in a rush a campaign good enough to navigate the modern nomination process. Mitt Romney already has nine figures available in his war chest. What will a new Savior have when he declares in mid-June?

The GOP's saving grace might be that the candidate with the least appeal to the party base but the best odds of competing in the general election may win by default. If Pawlenty fails to catch fire – not hard to imagine, is it? – then I can't imagine who other than Mittens is going to win this thing. As nuts as the GOP base is, I have a hard time seeing Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Ron Paul being serious contenders as opposed to flag-bearers for a specific faction in the party.

If these were my options, I'd be dreaming up fantastic scenarios involving knights in shining armor too.

SEDUCTION

The morning after the 2008 election, The Onion did the best job of bringing some perspective to the year-long spectacle of the presidential election in "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job":

African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday…In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation's broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it.

I teach a presidency class at least once per academic year; in it I always ensure that we spend some time talking about the basic but often overlooked question of who would actually want this job. Aside from subjective benefits – prestige, attention, political power, a feeling of importance, getting to learn cool secrets, etc. – it's really not a very appealing job.

The pay is subpar compared to the alternatives available to anyone capable of being elected president. The president has no normal family life, and neither his spouse nor his children can go anywhere without heavy security. In the average month 500-1000 different individuals threaten to kill you, about 1% of whom are making an actual plan to do so. The president works 70 or 80 hours per week and is on call 24-7. Everything on TV and in the newspaper is about how terrible the president is, why everything he does is wrong, and why he has ruined the nation. In the modern era, 60% is considered an astronomically high approval rating, i.e. the best you can hope for is that only about 120,000,000 Americans will hate you and consider you an abject failure. The odds of leaving office as a "success" are virtually nil.

It's not surprising that we see people who could conceivably be competitive in a presidential election declining to run. Mike Huckabee was a nobody ex-governor in 2008 until he won the Iowa Caucuses. That success made him a legitimate contender for the presidency (although certainly not an undisputed favorite) in 2012. But it also made him a TV host to the tune of $500,000 annually for one show per week, a syndicated radio contributor for an undisclosed six-figure salary, a highly compensated public speaker, and a fixture among the select group of authors who can churn out 250 pages of empty crap every 8 months and have it sell a million copies. As Chris Wallace said in response to claims that Fox unfairly boosts certain GOP candidates who happened to be paid on-air talent, "I have a theory that in fact (Fox News makes) life so pleasant for these folks like Mike Huckabee, I'm not sure Mike Huckabee wants to go campaign. I think he loves what he's doing here at Fox."

Mike Huckabee, in short, has been seduced by the good life of the pundit class, the Beltway pros who get paid a lot to work very little – "work" in this case consisting of offering opinions that range from the obvious to the deliberately provocative to the inane. The part of him that wanted to be president for personal glory or to serve the country was gradually worn away by the allure of money and stardom. The only thing more seductive than the limelight is money, and people like Huckabee are increasingly offered both as alternatives to presidential politics.

Huckabee certainly isn't the only one. Al Gore, who could have run a very credible campaign in 2008, realized that writing books, spending time with his wife, making movies, appearing on sitcoms, and winning awards was a lot more appealing than dragging himself and his family through the mud again. Sarah Palin is a right-wing brand name par excellence, with $50,000+ speaking fees and million dollar advances on ghostwritten books. She appears before crowds of sycophants who adore her, which is probably as ego-rewarding as political power. Michelle Bachmann could get a six-figure job at any Christian right powerhouse she chooses, and Mitt Romney could hit the Board of Directors circuit without breaking a sweat.

In short, many of these people are vacillating about 2012 not only because Obama will be difficult to beat but also because there are so many private sector temptations. For Republicans in particular, with the conservatives' strong network of targeted media outlets, non-profits, and interest groups, the temptation is getting darn near overwhelming. Unless an individual has an ego that can only be satisfied by the presidency, choosing between a couple million dollars per year hosting a TV show or "writing" "books" and serving as president is no choice at all.

(PS: For a decent summary of what Huckabee's exit does to the GOP field see Chris Cillizza)

FARM SYSTEM

It seems odd given that the 2012 election is still 18 months in the future, but it's never too early to look ahead to 2016. In many ways I expect that to be a far more interesting election, given that it is likely to be an open seat like 2008. Beyond that, it looks like a very weak GOP field in 2012 belies the strength of their candidate pool for 2016. On the other hand the Democratic contenders for the post-Obama era do not inspire much confidence at the moment.

Let's assume for now that Obama is re-elected in 2012. Until we see a plausible contender rise to the top of the current GOP field we have to give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt. All the usual caveats apply – Obama is beatable, the election is a long way off, etc. But if you had to bet your life savings on it today, would you pick the incumbent or someone out of the Trump-Romney-Gingrich-Palin grab bag? I thought so.

First, elephant in the room: Joe Biden. He will turn 74 three weeks after the 2016 election. The odds that he will run seem very slim. He's not very popular on his own and unless the hypothetical Obama Second Term is the greatest four years in American history it doesn't seem like he would generate much enthusiasm.

The GOP field will have a good deal of new blood. Most of the 2012 candidates are people who are getting their last shot. Romney is finished if he doesn't win the nomination this time. Mitch Daniels, although you'd never tell by looking at him, is 62 years old and will be 67 on Election Day 2016. This is the best shot he'll get. Gingrich is already old and not very popular. Mike Huckabee is only 55 today but he would run in 2016 as a two-time loser. So it's a very good thing for the GOP that there are some prospects in the farm system. Who makes the most sense?

Marco Rubio – This guy is good. Scary good. If I am a Republican I'm grooming this guy for the big time (possibly with a keynote at the 2012 Convention) and if I'm a Democrat my mind is already working overtime thinking of how to counter him. Rubio has what George W. Bush had – that magical ability to hold far, far right policy positions but to sound moderate, reasonable, and sane to the average person. You never hear him and think, "Wow, this guy is way out there." So he not only appeals to the Teabag crowd but to mainstream Republicans and moderately attentive independents as well. He looks good, sounds good, and would have a stranglehold on a very important state. He'll be 44 in 2016.

John Thune – The quintessential Empty Suit candidate, I can see Thune garnering a lot of support from party insiders and corporate donors. He's a blank slate with good presentation skills. Teabaggers probably wouldn't tolerate him given his support for bailout bills while in the Senate. He seems more like a young John Boehner than a real presidential contender.

Jeb Bush – I don't see it. I don't see this at all. He couldn't even win Florida if Rubio was also in the race, and George W. Bush remains so unpopular that even the ant-like memory of the American public would force Jeb to run with a gigantic weight chained to his ankle.

Bobby Jindal – He never impressed me and I think his charisma is a fraction of what Republicans imagine it to be, but he'll almost certainly run. It's not clear how he carves out a niche or who his coalition would include.

Paul Ryan – You can tell that the GOP thought of him as a rising star, but he has the personal appeal of a desk lamp and once he gets done touting his plan to gut Medicare and Social Security he'll have a tough time getting elected dog catcher let alone president.

Chris Christie – If we're trying to be nice we could say he's a Republican Howard Dean, exciting but too unfiltered and aggressive to be a serious mainstream candidate. If we're being mean we could say he's a braying jackass who will be lucky to avoid being blown out when he runs for re-election in New Jersey.

Mike Pence – He's a strong favorite to be the next Indiana Governor. As a presidential candidate I see him as little more than a Sam Brownback / Rick Santorum / Mike Huckabee type who will get some acclaim from evangelicals and the Religious Right but not much else.

That's nothing to sneeze at. Rubio, Christie, Thune, and Jindal all strike me as plausible contenders if they were to win the nomination. What about on the Democratic side?

Hillary Clinton – She'll be 68 in 2016. Personally I think 2008 was her shot. She'll be the Democratic equivalent of Gingrich by 2016, a name that has been around forever but never made it to the top. She burned a hell of a lot of bridges within her party in 2008. But I don't doubt that she could raise a ton of money and mount a campaign with little effort.

Rahm Emanuel – The name is getting thrown out there but I don't see this at all. Obama clearly saw him as something of a protege, but he just seems like a corporatist tool with no charisma. He has insider skills but it's hard to see who gets excited about him in a presidential race.

Martin O'Malley – Who? Keep an eye on the two-term Mayor of Baltimore, current Governor of Maryland, and chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Currently 48, O'Malley is one of the few sitting Democratic governors who qualifies as a youngish up and comer. He presents well and has cred among different factions of the party. You heard his name here first.

Andrew Cuomo – The very polished Governor of New York, now 53, seems like the strongest candidate at the moment but I have reservations. As we saw with Kerry, the Republican Party is basically a machine designed to destroy New England liberals (especially, in Cuomo's case, "ethnic" ones).

Brian Schweitzer – The Montana Governor and former DGA chair is a great candidate on paper, moderate and popular in a typically Republican state. However, he's dull and moderate to a fault. It's unclear who would get excited about a pasty Montanan who talks about centrism even more than Obama.

Is that everyone? Of course not. More names will come and go over five long years. Just for the fun of making a long-term forecast, though, I'd say the odds are with Marco Rubio and Andrew Cuomo based on what we know today. In that match-up I think Rubio would have the upper hand, although obviously much depends on how the Obama second term goes…if there is one.

Who else seems like a contender?

LACK OF WILLING DONORS

Lots of things going on this week, many of them unpleasant. Forgive me for keeping it (relatively) brief again.

In the wake of bin Laden mania a lot of other news has fallen by the wayside, and I think more attention should be paid to the result of the special state legislative election in Wisconsin's 94th Assembly district. It's not often that an off-year special election for a vacant seat in the state house merits discussion, but given the recent events in Wisconsin it is worth noting that Democrat Steve Doyle won a seat held by Republicans since 1994.

My first reaction to The Walker Plan earlier this year was "Well I guess whoever the GOP nominates in 2012 can forget about Wisconsin." Wisconsonites are hard to rile but a mass of energy once riled (Minnesotans fit that description as well, for the record). Anything other than a strong backlash against Republicans in next year in Wisconsin will be a real surprise. The special election result and the increasing momentum of the efforts to recall Republican Senators support the argument, although as always we should be careful to note that much can change between now and November 2012. For the sake of argument, however, let's assume for a moment that Wisconsin is indeed a dead zone for Republicans in 2012. Adding it to the list of states that no moderately informed observer believes Obama (or any Democratic presidential candidate for that matter) can lose, we get:


242 Electoral Votes

That would mean Obama starts from a position where adding one additional state could be enough to secure victory. Granted, the states he would need to get over 270 are all tough battlegrounds – Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, etc. – but a potential Republican challenger would have to be intimidated by the idea that Obama begins the race within spitting distance of 270 barring a complete meltdown of some kind. Maybe that is why a GOP primary debate scheduled for May 2 had to be rescheduled to Sept. 14 due to lack of confirmed candidates. Except for the ones who have no chance of winning (Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, etc.) candidates have been hesitant to make things official. It doesn't mean Obama is a shoo-in, but you can bet that a lot more candidates would be "in" at this point if they expected a race against Obama to be easy – or anything short of a long struggle with long odds.