Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders swept away the old rules for presidential candidates — and the changes they wrought are quickening ambitions here in Massachusetts, the Land of Presidential Hopefuls, if not that many, um, actual make-it-to-the-Oval Office leaders.
Consider: No fewer than four Bay State figures are known or thought to be appraising their national prospects.
Obama showed that if you have political talent and policy savvy, you don’t need much by way of national experience or accomplishments to run and win. Trump demonstrated that if you can strike a durable bond with a dedicated constituency, you don’t need any public experience. Or any real understanding of the issues.
In a year when Trump became the oldest man ever elected president, Sanders pushed another informal stricture upward. Time was, 70 or 71 was more or less the limit for a viable nonincumbent. But Sanders was 74 during the primaries; that didn’t faze his supporters or keep him from being considered credible. A second effect: His candidacy seems to have pulled the Democratic Party to port.
All of that has obviously registered here.
Take, for example, US Representative Seth Moulton. Yes, the former Marine’s four tours of duty in Iraq lend him a gravitas beyond his years. Still, by the old rules, a 38-year-old representative with fewer than three years in Congress under his belt wouldn’t be caught traipsing around Iowa. Under the old rules, Young + Inexperienced = Overly Ambitious. But under the new rules, who knows?
On the other end of the age spectrum, John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s 2004 nominee, is planning a December trip to Iowa. His ostensible purpose: to speak at a pair of fund-raisers for his friend Tom Miller, Iowa’s long-serving attorney general. Still, Kerry campers acknowledge something more is afoot: He’s never completely given up on his White House dreams. After all, he ran a credible campaign against incumbent George W. Bush, clearly besting him in their debates. As a former secretary of state, he has more foreign policy experience than any other prospective candidate. And should Trump upend the nuclear deal Kerry negotiated with Iran, defending that pact would give him a rationale for running.
Still, under the old rules, the portcullis would have long ago clanged down on Kerry’s hopes. Not only did he run and lose in 2004, he fouled out of a prospective second campaign when a bungled joke opened him to absurd charges that he was belittling our troops in Iraq rather than poking fun at Bush. Atop that, he’s 73. So the consensus would have been clear: Kerry’s moment has come and gone. But these days, it’s not absurd to think it might possibly come around again.
Former governor Deval Patrick is also casting an interested eye over the political landscape. Although a mesmerizing speaker, Patrick proved an indifferent manager and only an average governor. Add his out-of-office status and, under the old political norms, he would be a long shot as a presidential candidate. But compared to Trump, Patrick isn’t just a rhetorical Cicero, he’s an Augustus of accomplishment.
Then, of course, there’s Senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s up for reelection next year, but if she wins, she’s expected to take a hard look at a 2020. Given her prominence, she’d start any race as a top-tier candidate. Still, not so long ago, she’d have fallen into the Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown, Howard Dean category: a candidate who energizes the staunch liberals but ultimately lacks enough centrist appeal to win the nomination. However, if Democrats respond to this era of Republican overreach and incompetence by lurching — er, making a considered move — left, who knows?
So be warned, political junkies: Massachusetts, once the state of dashed hopes, may well be back in presidential play in 2020.