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Shribman: Looking for a fresh face in politics

David Shribman

There are rare moments in history when Americans have sought the comfort of experience over the excitement of novelty. Indeed, our first five presidents were established figures, familiar and experienced, and steeped in the values of the Revolution and the Constitution.

But there are other times when Americans have been drawn to the fresh and the new, which is why Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama emerged as strong presidential candidates in times of transition or trial.

The challenge for political analysts is to gauge the temper of the times — to determine whether, as it was in 1988, an experienced hand (George H.W. Bush) is preferred, or whether, as in 1992, the country is open to the entreaties of a relative outsider (Bill Clinton). The difficulty of that calculus is summarized in the career of Abraham Lincoln, who ascended to the White House as the least experienced of the 1860 contenders but who prevailed four years later after popularizing the notion that it was imprudent to swap horses in midstream.

The 2016 presidential campaign is barely underway, but in its early stages it can be characterized by a giant contradiction:

The two candidates regarded as front-runners, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are both established figures, but polls clearly suggest that the public is in the mood for a new face. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that, by an astonishing 59-38 margin, the public says it prefers a president with new ideas and vision rather than one with experience.

Let’s put aside the inner contradictions of some of the poll’s questions — the false notion, that an experienced political figure cannot have new ideas or vision. Surely both Clinton and Bush believe they do, but there is no debating the fact that much of their appeal is due to their experience, or the experience the nation has had with members of their respective families.

That’s why there is inherent tension in this election. The two most prominent figures are not only members of their party establishments, but also are coming to this race from traditional bases, including the State Department, which has provided six presidents, and the nation’s governors’ offices, which, if you include territorial and district governorships, have provided nearly half the presidents.

The Journal/NBC poll shows that, by a margin of more than 2-to-1, the public considers Bush more a figure of the past than a candidate of new ideas and, by the smaller margin of 51-to-44, considers Clinton the same way.

All front-running candidates face pressure, but those of 2016 are facing unusual challenges. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said, “I just think voters are going to look at this and say, ‘If we’re running against Hillary Clinton, we’ll need a name from the future, not a name from the past, to win.’”

The Democratic worry is that the party has no Plan B in the event Clinton stumbles. Its new faces are obscure even to the trained eye and virtually invisible to the public eye. It is a party that is convinced that, with its demographic advantages and policy positions, it is poised for a bright future, but right now it is a leaderless horde if for some reason Clinton stands down or is weakened.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.