Will Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016? Will Ted Cruz? Will Chris Christie? Will Rand Paul?
Yes. So long as we keep telling them to.
There are so many excellent reasons for us not to talk about the 2016 presidential election—at least not for another year or two—it seems nearly pointless to pick out just one.
Nonetheless, there is a particular drawback to early electoral pontificating that is worth underlining, if only because it can be so easily (and perilously) overlooked.
The conventional view is that speculating about an election that is more than three years away is silly, because anything we say now will prove to be utterly irrelevant to the way the campaign actually shakes out.
This is certainly true in some respects. Three years before the 2012 election, for instance, Mike Huckabee was the leading candidate for the GOP nomination in most opinion polls, and he ended up not running at all. In the preceding cycle, America spent the entirety of 2005, 2006 and 2007 convinced that the 2008 race would be between Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani. Three years out from that election, Barack Obama’s name was nowhere to be found.
The greater concern, however, is exactly the reverse: That our idle musings about who might make a decent president actually will have an effect on who takes the plunge—and in all the worst ways.
I put it to you like this: Would you be more or less likely to apply for a particular job if a trusted friend told you that you should? How about if the idea were floated by not one, but all of your closest confidants, and what if this prodding continued for several years and was amplified, in due course, by the entire American news industry?
At that point, would you not consider yourself worthy of the position, however skeptical you might have felt at the outset? These people can’t all be wrong, could they? And think of how disappointed they would be if you declined.
What we are seeing now are the birthing pangs of presidential hubris: The period in which the media anoints a group of public figures whom it deems potentially interesting candidate material, thereby planting the thought in those people’s heads, and it becomes only a matter of time before the prophesy is self-fulfilled.
The trouble is that the American presidency is a job for which no one in America is truly and fully qualified, and so the gig tends to attract two types of people: Those who have always been told they are special and view the Oval Office as their destiny and birthright, and those who have been told they will never amount to anything and seek to prove everyone wrong.
In both cases, when push comes to shove, every serious candidate for the nation’s highest office has been made to marinate in all of his or her best headlines—the inevitable consequence of being surrounded by folks who have dutifully drunk the Kool-Aid and think you’re the greatest thing since sliced avocado.
Today’s young people, the Millennials, are rather famously known as the generation with too much self-esteem. The kids who were assured, almost from birth, that if they would just follow their dreams, they could be anything their little hearts desired, and whose self-confidence was reinforced all along the way with ribbons and rewards and the guarantee that nothing is impossible.
(I, for one, spent the better part of high school and college being told I might make a decent writer, and that’s why you’re stuck with me here today.)
The fact is that this behavior is not limited to one generation, and it does not evaporate at the end of adolescence.
Politicians feed on positive reinforcement more than most other mammals. The majority of them are so needy and insecure, even while harboring unconscionable vanity and ambition, that every last stray comment about their potential for higher office serves as validation and a license to abandon any shred of self-doubt they might have had left.
Electoral politics is a personality cult. This may ultimately be unavoidable.
What remains in our grasp, however, is the degree to which this continues to be the case.
If we truly believe that the cycle of campaigning has spun completely out of control and needs to be brought back to its proper proportions, all we need to do is ignore it until we reach a saner point on the political calendar.
Don’t watch cable news. Don’t read the results of the latest Iowa straw poll. Don’t be an enabler of a plainly corrosive process by thinking that your actions have no effect on it.
As surely as a politician will view public interest as an invitation to start his or her campaign, TV executives will view a lack of interest (and a drop in ratings) as a desperate plea to stop.