- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

As candidates start jumping into the presidential sweepstakes, observers might miss an important fact about 2008: The upcoming presidential primary elections may be the most democratic and wide-open in American history, one that could result in a full debate on each party’s basic core beliefs.

This election is different not because of Iraq or the Democrats’ recent electoral success. Rather it is a rare anomaly: 2008 is the first presidential election in more than half a century where neither an incumbent president nor incumbent vice president will receive one of the parties’ nominations. Despite attempts by candidates and the media to push different candidates forward, for the first time in recent memory, there is no real front-runner for either major party’s nomination. And the issues, debates and results will be more unpredictable.

Due to Vice President Dick Cheney’s health problems and repeated insistence he would not seek the presidency, it has been obvious since George W. Bush was re-elected president in 2004 that no incumbent would be on the ballot. The last time this occurred — and it only happened four times in the 20th century — was way back in 1952, when the selection of nominees were completely different affairs. Back then, and in all of the prior elections, each party’s nominee was more likely to be chosen in the famed “smoke-filled” backrooms of the convention than by a popular vote of the people. The 2008 election is the first double open election of the more democratic primary and caucus system.

In each election since 1952, an incumbent has run for and won one of the parties’ nominations. While it is no surprise that presidents are able to gain renomination, historically vice presidents were unable to garner their parties’ presidential nomination. From 1836 until Richard Nixon broke the streak in 1960, only vice presidents who moved up due to presidential death were able to claim their parties’ nomination for the presidency. But since then, 7 of 10 vice presidents, all but the disgraced Spiro “Ted” Agnew, the deceased Nelson Rockefeller and the ridiculed Dan Quayle, were able to serve as standard-bearer for their party in a presidential race. And not a single election has occurred without an incumbent taking one of the parties’ nominations.

The presence of an incumbent plays a major role in defining the presidential race. The issues and debates surrounding both the primary and general election campaigns are focused on the incumbent’s record. This makes perfect sense when a president runs for re-election, but it also holds true for a vice president running to succeed his boss. For example, George H.W. Bush ran proudly as the keeper of the flame of the Reagan administration, while Al Gore was able to capitalize on Bill Clinton’s continued popularity with Democratic voters.

Though it sometimes can be harmful in the general election, this ability to shape the debate, coupled with the greater name recognition gained from serving in a national office, gives the incumbent a decisive advantage in the primaries. It almost automatically puts the candidate in the center position. All the primary contenders must therefore run either to the left or to the right of the incumbent. Even strong challengers, such as Ronald Reagan in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988 and Bill Bradley in 2000, were forced to run from outside the party’s center.

However, in 2008, the lack of a true incumbent who can take credit or blame for the actions of the Bush administration will change the dynamic of both the general, and more importantly, the primary elections. In a very real way, no candidate will either be able to run on, or be forced to defend themselves against, the Bush record. Each Republican candidate will have to stand on his or her own ideas. We already see the results, as candidates representing the different shades of social and economic conservatism have started jockeying for the leading role in 2008.

A similar phenomenon will soon infect the Democratic primary. Though right now it appears the race will be shaped by an anti-George Bush sentiment and the position of Hillary Clinton as a presumed “front-runner,” by late 2007 that very well may change, and the Democratic hopefuls will discover, unlike in the 2006 races, that they will not be able to run simply as “the opposition.” Instead, the party will have to hash out the traditional economic and social policy issues, something that they did not have to do in 2004.

As with nearly any other election, there will be much talk about how 2008 is one of the exciting and important elections in American history. But because of the lack of an incumbent and the effect of that unusual circumstance on both parties, they will be right.

Joshua Spivak is an attorney and media consultant.

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