There are very few similarities between Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton, not least of which is how I feel about them personally: Reagan is my favorite president, and Clinton is someone who – if she were to be elected – I imagine I would consider tolerable at best.
But Reagan and Clinton have something far greater in common than how I – or countless others- feel about them: they are the only two politicians in the last 50 years to hold the de facto distinction of “presidential heir apparent.”
After Reagan received a thunderous ovation at the 1976 Republican Convention – having been cast aside by the Party’s powers-that-be in favor of the comparatively listless incumbent, Gerald Ford, exhibiting the GOP’s oft-self-destructive penchant for protocol over electability – Reagan was dubbed the inevitable favorite to win the nomination in 1980.
Similarly, Clinton is all-but-guaranteed the Democratic nomination in 2016. The only caveat – and it certainly is a plausible one – is that she found herself in the exact same situation in 2008. And then, two words turned political punditry on its ear: Barack Obama. Virtually no one – not even Clinton’s political guru husband and former president Bill – could have foreseen the Obama phenomenon.
But, how often does a Barack Obama come around? Someone who emerges from virtual obscurity to upset a heavy favorite in a major party primary? (The general election victory in November was a given: the real political “Super Bowl” that year was the Obama-Clinton Democratic showdown. Virtually any Democrat would have beaten Bush apologist John McCain once the mortgage bubble burst.) The last time something like that happened was in 1976, when virtual unknown Jimmy Carter shocked the world by besting the heavily-favored Ted Kennedy for the 1976 Democratic nomination. Even then, however, there were some differences: Carter, as Governor of Georgia, had a stronger political portfolio than Obama, a freshman senator. And Kennedy had to endure the scandal of Chappaquidick, a far more damaging skeleton than Hillary’s Whitewatergate. Nonetheless, even if we count Carter’s upset as a near-miracle equivalent to Obama’s those two aberrations happened 32 years apart. By that measure, the next such surprise is not due until the election of 2040.
Accordingly, if Hillary Clinton were to run, it is almost inconceivable that another Democrat could deprive her of the Democratic coronation, and rather unlikely that any Republican would match her prowess in the general election. On the other hand, if she chooses to bow out – it’s virtually anyone’s election to win.