For any candidate to have an authentic chance to be the presidential nominee of either party, the voters have to envision him (or her) as sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. If they can’t do that, John Sears, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, observed, the hopeful candidate will never make it. Mr. Sears called this the candidate’s first test.
Several candidates in the Republican swarm about to descend on Cleveland for Thursday’s first debate of the primary season are having trouble with that first test. Several others have passed it. Agree with everything they’re saying or not, it’s not difficult to see them in the Oval Office. Some others, try as they might, can’t quite come into sharp focus.
There will be other tests, some tougher than others. Hillary Clinton has been considered the inevitable nominee for a long time because like her or despise her, nearly everyone can imagine her as the president, scary prospect though it might well be. This was the conventional wisdom only months ago. Now, not so much.
Once the voters and her Democratic colleagues watched her campaign rollout — she had not just one, but two — and her contemptuous refusal to give substantive answers to substantive questions; her arrogance in setting up her private email server and then, Nixon-like, destroying evidence of who knows what, the armor of inevitability began to crumble. Public-opinion polls began to reflect diminishing trust, and when a grouchy Vermont socialist challenged her he quickly became competitive in key states.
It’s much too early to think about counting the lady out. She’s got the name identification no one else has, a raft of true believers eager to do anything for her and the money to ride out many a storm. But many voters who can envision her as president are nevertheless taken aback at the thought of her sitting behind the desk of FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Her party’s problem is that there’s no one else who can pass that crucial first test. Bernie Sanders draws big crowds, just like Ron Paul once did. But President Sanders? That doesn’t come into focus, either.
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, was so disliked that a Republican who promised to clean up what he had wrought was elected to succeed him. Even shirtless, in the fashion of Vladimir Putin, Mr. O’Malley can’t score more than 1 or 2 percent in the polls in the early primary states where he is working hard.
Which brings us to Vice President Joe Biden, who has hankered after the presidency for longer than Mrs. Clinton. He can’t escape his reputation as master of the gaffe. He earned his reputation in his first attempt at winning the presidency, when he put out a campaign biography with passages lifted from the biography of a British politician, and Joe talked of his early life of poverty as the spawn of poor Welsh coal miners. His family was particularly puzzled by the news. Many Americans would be delighted to sit down and have a cool one with Joe, to listen to his yarns, stretchers and tall tales, but nevertheless can’t see him as the president of the United States.
It’s the Democrats with a candidate problem. Some of the talking heads will giggle at the Republican feast on Thursday night in Cleveland, but it’s the coming Democratic presentation of its junior varsity where the giggles will become guffaws.