The 2012 campaign is going to be a long one. While the year ahead will no doubt have some twists and turns along the way, these five issues will go a long way toward telling us who will occupy the White House on January 20, 2013.
The Economy. Simply put, an improving economy with positive monthly job numbers and an unemployment rate on the decline makes President Obama's re-election all but assured. Conversely, a slowing economy with choppy job numbers and continued uncertainty would make it far less likely he will get another four years. The wild card here is Congress. Congressional Republicans took it on the chin during the payroll tax cut debate and now, with 200,000 jobs added in December and the unemployment rate gradually declining, they will need to make a difficult calculation about whether it makes sense to compromise with the President or risk being portrayed as trying to suffocate the nascent recovery.
The President is not without other tools in his political tool box either. He can continue to push for the American Jobs Act, make another attempt at a "grand bargain" targeted at long-term deficit reduction and promote tax reform that is crafted in a way that ensures wealthy Americans pay more. Moreover, and as he has already done with the recess appointment of Richard Cordray, he can begin to push back against Wall Street excess. Romney's economic message will be largely reactive. Attacks on things like the stimulus bill and "Obamacare" are largely baked into the cake at this point - few minds are going to be changed about the efficacy or folly of these large pieces of legislation. The overriding power of the monthly unemployment figures and, to a lesser extent, the gyrations of the stock market, predicate whether Romney will be able to make a case about the President's management of the economy.
A Third Party Candidate. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is in his final term in office, has a net worth north of $1 billion and access to a part line ("Americans Elect") that is likely to be on the ballot in all 50 states. He has many of Mitt Romney's attributes - wealth, success in business, a non-Democrat leading a heavily Democratic electorate - along with more progressive views on social issues. How Bloomberg would hold up under the spotlight of a national campaign and whether the American people would be willing to vote into office a man without a party is of course unknowable, but Bloomberg's wealth, hybrid political posture (fiscally conservative, socially liberal), and willingness to go head-to-head across the country would make the election the most volatile since Teddy Roosevelt assumed leadership of the Bull Moose Party 100 years ago.
A more realistic scenario would be if Ron Paul decided to run as a Libertarian candidate. Paul has polled well in the first two Republican contests, particularly in New Hampshire, where he more than tripled his tally from 2008. He's nearing 80, has already decided to not run for re-election to the House and may think this is his last chance to impact public policy. If Paul polls at 15% as a third-party candidate he also gets a very valuable invitation to the Presidential debates, where an audience of nearly 100 million would be available to him. While some pundits have suggested that Paul will not run third-party to avoid any blowback against his son Rand, who may seek the Republican nomination in the future, I don't find this argument persuasive. If Romney wins in 2012, the next opportunity for Rand Paul to run for President will be 2020, several lifetimes in politics. Conversely, if Romney loses, the 2016 race is going to attract any and every politician in elected office and I doubt primary voters will hold it against Rand Paul that his dad decided to run as a Libertarian. Lastly, it is entirely possible that the strain of conservative thought that the Pauls represent may be a spent force in four (or eight) years. The iron is hot, I Dr. Paul will strike it if he thinks he can get into the debate with Romney and Obama.
The Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is set to inject itself directly into the 2012 election by issuing rulings in the next six months on three hot button issues: immigration, redistricting and, of course, health care reform. That these cases will be decided is a given, the question is how these cases will be decided and what the political fallout will be. Rulings that permit states to more aggressively engage in law enforcement activity to identify and arrest illegal immigrants will likely inflame Hispanic activists and could hurt Republicans (Romney has already come out against the DREAM Act). As for redistricting, whether the Court rejects a neutrally drafted map for the Texas delegation may impact control of the House of Representatives. Lastly, health care looms as the 800-pound gorilla and is likely to be the last opinion issued of the term. If the Court upholds the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, the national dialogue around health care will dramatically change. Not only will it eliminate the uncertainty of its implementation, but upholding the law, by definition, would require the acquiescence of at least one of the conservative justices on the court, diluting arguments about judicial activism. If the Court strikes down either the individual mandate specifically, or, in striking that down, strikes the entire law, one of the most powerful rallying points for Republican activists will be eliminated.
That these rulings will impact the Presidential race is without question, but a more tantalizing (if morbid) possibility exists that one (or more) vacancies may occur smack dab in the middle of the general election. I say this not because I am rooting for the death, incapacity or retirement of any of the justices, regardless of how vehemently I disagree with some of their legal views, but rather, am looking at the situation realistically - there are 4 Supreme Court justices in their 70s - Justice Ginsberg (78), Justice Scalia (75), Justice Kennedy (75) and Justice Breyer (73). Justice Ginsberg has had several serious illnesses and Justice Breyer, having been nominated to the bench by a Democrat, may want to give President Obama an opportunity to appoint his successor and not run the risk of stepping down during a Romney Administration (Justice O'Connor famously lamented at a 2000 Election Night party that, when it appeared Vice President Gore was going to win, she would have to stay on the bench for four more years). Perhaps Justice Kennedy, if he, casts the deciding vote upholding the Affordable Care Act, might decide to bow out at the end of the Court's term.
A retirement at the end of the current court session in June would obviously play differently than an unexpected vacancy in October. Nevertheless, and particularly if one of the justices from the conservative wing is no longer on the bench, a Supreme Court vacancy in 2012 would make any confirmation not just "must-see" TV but an opportunity to see whether Republicans do the unthinkable and filibuster a Supreme Court nominee to stop President Obama from filling a seat in hopes he loses in November. Consider that LBJ's attempted elevation of Abe Fortas to the Chief Justice's slot in 1968 ran aground on ethics concerns and ultimately, the chair was vacant until Richard Nixon was elected. Had LBJ gotten a Chief Justice through while he was still President, no Burger Court would have happened, and, depending on how long that man or woman served, perhaps no Rehnquist Court either. This is a black swan that could potentially dominate the news cycle like few others.
The Middle East. The "Middle East" is admittedly a broad term that encompasses everything from what will happen in Egypt to whether or not Iran goes nuclear and how we close out the Afghanistan war. Whether this area remains relatively stable or completely blows up could dramatically impact our politics. Just this week, a place that was probably unknown to most Americans (the Straits of Hormuz) suddenly made the front page because Iran threatened to close access to it and thereby, squeezing our oil supplies. A huge spike in gas prices could suffocate our economy and drive us toward another recession. On the other hand, implementing additional United Nations sanctions might get Iran to the table to negotiate an end to their nuclear ambitions (which would be a huge coup for Obama).
Other hot spots include Egypt, where the intangible of elections and whether the Army will legitimately give up power hang in the balance. How Syria is resolved could play a huge role not just with Iran but also have smaller repercussions in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Speaking of Israel, how (or if) it interacts with the Palestinians, the new leaders in Egypt and what it does about Iran's nuclear ambitions will all factor into the stability of the region. If our government's attempts to bring the Taliban to the peace table proceed and an agreement to end that war progresses, that would be a further feather in the President's cap. On the other hand, if the Taliban rejects peace talks and continues to inflict damage on our troops, the war will continue to be front and center in our foreign policy. Finally, Pakistan looms in the background, with an actual nuclear arsenal and a populace that is becoming ever more anti-American. If even one of these tinder boxes suddenly explodes, the ramifications on our presidential politics will be enormous.
Unknown Unknowns. In 1980, the Reagan campaign was worried about a so-called "October Surprise" - that the Carter Administration would negotiate the release of the hostages in Iran - and torpedo Reagan's chances for victory. It never happened and Reagan won. Since then, other election year events came out of nowhere and impacted the election. In 1992, members of the Bush State Department leaked information about Bill Clinton's passport and travel to the Soviet Union while Clinton was at Oxford. In 2000, Elian Gonzalez washed up on the shores of Florida and dominated the headlines for weeks on end (one can only speculate on whether the nighttime raid by FBI agents that resulted in little Elian being returned to Cuba impacted Gore in Florida), in 2004, Osama Bin Laden released audio tapes in the week leading up to the election and of course, in 2008, the financial industry melted down 8 weeks before Americans went to the ballot booth. None of those incidents was foreseen or could have been predicated, yet they happened anyway and each impacted the final outcome of the election.
In 2012, any number of "unknown unknowns" could affect the presidential race. What if Chief Justice Roberts, who has had health problems in the past, were to die in office (or become incapacitated?). What if North Korea opens itself up to the rest of the world? What if Obama flips Biden and Clinton in his cabinet? What if the economy spikes and grows at 5-6%? Or home prices suddenly rebound? What if a peace treaty is signed with the Taliban? What if we have another terrorist attack on the U.S.? The weird thing about our world today is that it feels like not just one, but several "unknown unknown" might happen. These unpredictable events may overshadow and overwhelm the ordinary political discourse and make other "predictable" events seem minor in comparison.
In 2008, McCain had overtaken Obama in the days leading up to the financial crisis but when it hit, Obama's sober, grounded response was in stark comparison to McCain's hysterics (suspending his campaign, threatening not to show up to a debate, calling for a meeting at the White House with President Bush and then saying little during it, etc.). For all intents and purposes, that week or so sealed McCain's fate and handed Obama the presidency. While we have no way of knowing what will happen, Obama's position as incumbent will, in most cases, work to his benefit if for no other reason than the natural inclination to depoliticize crises and rally around the President.
So buckle up, folks. It's going to be a bumpy (and long) ride.