If Mitt Romney loses in November, last week we had the opportunity to watch and gauge the effectiveness of virtually every possible serious Republican contender for the party’s next presidential nomination. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie all had their moments in the spotlight, as did Rand Paul and even 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum. But none of the serious contenders for what will be an open Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 will be on display in Charlotte. Former President Bill Clinton will be center stage on Wednesday but his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will be at the top of the list of Democratic contenders four years from now, is not on the schedule. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is barely stopping by to attend the conclave, let alone speak to the convention. There are, no doubt, some Democrats speaking in Charlotte who are thinking about running, but they are currently flying below the radar.
That will reduce the already slim hold of the convention on the interest of viewers. However, the assumption that the party’s nominee in 2008 and 2012 can’t possibly be their choice in 2016 may not be true.
There may be some sleepers on the speaker’s podium. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will deliver the keynote address tonight and already there are those who are promoting that speech as the equivalent of Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech that catapulted him onto the national stage. It’s true that no one foresaw Obama’s 2008 triumph when he was a mere Senate candidate at John Kerry’s Boston convention but expecting lightening to strike the same way for Castro seems far-fetched at best. Obama’s speech was considered striking in part because he was so unheralded and the address’s non-partisan theme was so appealing. Even if Castro’s paean to Obama is considered a success tonight, it won’t be able to match Obama’s achievement. Nor is it likely it will elevate him to a position where he can challenge Mrs. Clinton or Cuomo.
Yet there is another reason why there is a paucity of 2016 contenders for the Democrats that is little discussed but is nevertheless very real. If President Obama does lose in November, it is entirely possible that he will not go quietly into a prosperous retirement like all other recent ex-presidents. He is young enough and still fired by sufficient ruthless ambition to want another crack at the presidency four years from now.
It has been a long time since a national political party gave a losing presidential candidate a second try. Richard Nixon, who lost to John Kennedy in 1960 but won on his second shot in 1968, was the last. The last defeated incumbent to get another try was Democrat Grover Cleveland who won in 1884, lost in 1888 and then won a non-consecutive second term in 1892.
Barack Obama is still considered a slight favorite in November. But the assumption that he will just go away if he loses this year ignores the fact that both the president and his devoted fans will not take defeat lying down. Expect them to claim it was the result of lingering racism as well as other excuses like campaign finance laws and alleged “voter suppression” by the GOP rather than a straightforward rejection of a president who couldn’t run on his record. These resentments will make an Obama comeback a very real possibility. The denial of a second term could be enough to recapture the fervor that drove the president’s messianic “hope and change” campaign in 2008.
Most defeated incumbents immediately become yesterday’s news and are quickly ignored by their party’s officeholders and activists. But neither Jimmy Carter nor George H.W. Bush, the two most recent defeated one-term chief executives, was the first African-American president. If Obama ran in 2016 would any leading Democrat dare to oppose him? Would even Hillary Clinton seek a rematch of her 2008 defeat? Once again, Obama could run as a man who wants to make history, a stance that is more congenial to him than his current attempt to win merely by trashing his opponents.
Should the president win in November, the Democrats will have a choice between their past and their future as Clinton, Cuomo and some yet unknown contenders face off. But if he loses, don’t be surprised if the man we watch on Thursday night will be back accepting his third consecutive nomination for president.