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Who will run for president in 2016?

The following opinion piece by Mark Rush, Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law, appeared in the Jan. 4, 2015, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted here by permission.

Who will run for president in 2016?

Mark Rush
Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law

As Washington prepares for the seating of the new Congress and President Obama enters into the lamest part of any lame-duck presidency, pollsters and pundits set their sights on the most burning political question of the day: Who will be the presidential candidates in 2016?

The pollsters are already busy. Check the virtual polling sites, and you will see upward of a dozen names mentioned and possible Republican nominees: Christie, Bush, Ryan, Paul … the list goes on and on. Not one cracks 15 percent of voter support.

That sort of division in the Republican Party represents an astonishing reversal of fortune and strategy. Under Ronald Reagan (and Lee Atwater), the GOP courted moderate Democrats and made inroads into the black vote. Hence the term “Reagan Democrat” became part of our vocabulary, and Lee Atwater — Republican strategist extraordinaire — was seen visiting James Brown in prison. How times have changed.

Under Reagan, the GOP had a focus: fight the Cold War, keep government out of people’s bedrooms and maintain a moderate domestic agenda. It worked. Under Reagan, the Republicans demolished Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. The Democrats were in a tailspin. Democratic primaries were populated by numerous aspirants who whipped one another in bloody primary campaigns while the GOP sat back and waited for the general election.

Fast forward some three decades and the roles are reversed. The GOP is split 12 different ways. The party has no ideological center. Its recent leaders and standard bearers have names such as McCain, Palin, Huckabee, Romney, Paul, Christie — Stephen Hawking couldn’t find the party’s ideological center.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are quietly centered on the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Polls indicate that she has an overwhelming margin of party support. Her favorable ratings hover around 60 percent. Her — and the Democrats’ — greatest threat is the absence of any coherent party message. With the president fighting a Republican Congress and a Democratic Party licking its wounds from the beating it suffered in last November’s elections, the one thing a Clinton candidacy lacks is a firm partisan foundation.

What the Democrats do not lack is opportunity. This still is the party of the New Deal, Civil Rights and equality of opportunity. In an era punctuated by class tensions and the Occupy movements, heightened racial tensions, increasing economic inequality and so forth, the time is ripe for a truly progressive Democratic ticket to seize — if not reclaim — the mantle once worn by Roosevelts, Johnsons and, indeed, Reagans.

The Democrats are poised to reclaim this mantle in historic fashion. Never before has either party had two powerful frontrunners who were women. A Clinton-Warren ticket would devastate the GOP. The Republicans would have no answer to it.

Certainly, the Democrats would need to work hard to tailor the message of a Clinton-Warren ticket. The Clintons have ties to Wall Street, while Warren is making a career out of challenging the denizens of lower Manhattan. Clinton and Warren would have to agree early on to manage a primary system that is designed to divide political parties, not unite them. The party leadership would have to do what it once did best: pull the party together and focus on a coherent message of populism, equality and opportunity.

There is no question the Democrats could do it. They forged winning tickets from rivals in the past, such as Kennedy-Johnson and Clinton-Gore. A unified Clinton-Warren ticket would protect both candidates from the ravages of the primaries and strengthen Warren for what seems to be an inevitable run for the presidency in the future.

Our political system is designed to divide parties and force candidates to spend extraordinary sums to discredit their rivals. The Democrats have an opportunity to transcend those destructive forces and present a powerful, history-making ticket to the American people.

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