Are We There Yet? Will The 2012 Campaign Get Pushed Aside For The One In Four Years?

web fred harper waiting 2 1 Are We There Yet? Will The 2012 Campaign Get Pushed Aside For The One In Four Years?

Drawing by Fred Harper

Not long ago, the political and media cognoscenti maintained a strict code of conduct: never—except in the privacy of a late night bar stool, after all the recorders have been turned off and the stories filed—should the next presidential election be speculated upon before the current one concludes. Eventually, after the last of the ballots were counted, some poor pundit would find himself on cable news, and with the newly completed campaign season no longer able to stomach more blather, he would gamely look ahead to the campaign four years hence.

And the world, it seemed would emit a loud groan. Too soon! We are politics-sick! No more horse-race frivolity!

Not so in 2012.

Instead, the race four years from now is taking up so much oxygen that at times it looks as if it could crowd out the one five months from now. All the way back in March, The Fix, The Washington Post’s well-respected political blog, ran a feature called “Sweet 2016,” which allowed readers to vote round-robin style who they wanted to—or who they thought would—win in an election nearly five years away, choosing amongst such local luminaries as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov Chris Christie, not to mention figures from further afield, like Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (who, it should be noted, may be the first person in history to be seriously floated for the presidency while trailing in her inaugural political endeavor) current GOP heartthrob Marco Rubio, former GOP heartthrob Bobby Jindal and (because third Bush is a charm, right?) Ole Jeb.

And much like the Major League Baseball all-star game, for which fan voting in big cities like New York means an inordinate amount of Yankees and Mets in the line-up, so Mr. Cuomo bested Ms. Clinton in the final round of the Democratic tournament bracket and vanquished Mr. Rubio to cut down the nets.

This exercise was given fuller flower last week when The Daily News devoted a full-page story to a poll of New York City Democrats about whether they prefer Ms. Clinton to Mr. Cuomo (the answer: Ms. Clinton, by a lot) although most pollsters concede that even their 2012 state polls remain too far in advance to be predictive. POLITICO has logged hundreds of articles and blog posts on the subject already. The Times has gotten in on the act too, laying out the front-runners’—if such a term can exist when no one is running—paths to victory.  (Full disclosure/confession: this reporter too has gotten in on the act, once comparing what the respective political paths of Mr. Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley mean for the future of the Democratic Party. The purpose here is to diagnose, not condemn.)

And much of the speculation dates back far earlier, back to last year when the Republicans were crossing the cornfields of Iowa. Imagine if in the previous presidential cycle such speculation had been allowed to flower:  In 2003-2004, Barack Obama would have been simply a state legislator from Illinois, there was no YouTube, no Facebook and the next election seemed destined to turn on who was best to take on terrorism and defend the nation from gay marriage.

Political veterans, both on the campaign and media side say that there  are several reasons why the distant future has seemed so present.  Firstly, it must be said that as presidential elections go—national events that H.L. Mencken once described as “better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in”—this one has been more like a ragged carnival come to town, with a first communion and a suspended sentence thrown in. The primary season was obviously non-existent on the Democratic side, and the Republican side yielded only one candidate who could plausibility be considered a nominee, especially after Tim Pawlenty dropped out, and Rick Perry was unable to remember that he wanted to shutter the Department of Energy.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle privately concede that the show isn’t going to get any better now that the general election has begun in earnest. Even as polls show Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney to be essentially tied, and even as the economy continues to sputter—and could grow worse depending on what happens in Europe and the Middle East.  Through some combination of the incumbent’s advantage, Mr. Obama’s continued high likeability rating in the face of dismal political news, and the belief that Mr. Romney is a flawed candidate who can easily be painted as out-of-touch, there is a grudging but persistent sense that this election will not be the November nail-biter that the last several have been. In fact Gov. Perry has already publicly mentioned a possible 2016 run, apparently forgetting such a run would be inconvenient if Mitt Romney actually wins.