Photo Credits: JOELLE TAHTA / AGGIE
The groundwork is being laid for an election that will determine the future of both major political parties — and America
In the world of politics, it’s never too early to start picking favorites.
While the 2024 presidential election seems ages away, the stage is already being set for the next generation of political figureheads to try their hands at landing the nation’s biggest role. And from a broader perspective, the ideological evolution of the American electorate and the political parties that represent it are rapidly changing what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican in the modern era. All things considered, it’s not a bad time to imagine just what lies ahead for American voters.
This is hardly the first piece to predict what our electoral options will look like in just under half a decade. Politico ran a very similar piece just a few months ago, while the Washington Post had some of its experts predict potential GOP candidates in 2024. Each presented a compelling set of choices, and was written based on the assumption that 2024 will not feature an incumbent president, a likely prospect given candidate Biden’s apparent desire to serve only a single term. While it’s still far too early to determine a final outcome, for the sake of entertainment this piece will do the same.
Now let’s take a look at who could be occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the near future.
Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida:
DeSantis, the former representative of Florida’s 6th congressional district, first burst onto the national scene during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, promoting himself as a staunch Trump ideologue. Most notably, he broadcasted a commercial featuring him reading Trump’s 1987 magnum opus “The Art of the Deal” to one of his toddlers, followed by a scene with him constructing a toy border wall with his other. Harvard Law-educated DeSantis ended up securing a narrow electoral victory over progressive challenger Andrew Gillum, a former mayor of Tallahassee. Their election was both a close and a controversial one, with DeSantis winning by just over 33,000 votes after his opponent accused him of racist dog-whistling and pointed out alleged ties to the far-right.
DeSantis, like his fellow new age right-wing counterparts, has departed from the standard conservative playbook on a number of issues. Since taking office, he has embraced a degree of bipartisanship by moving to allocate additional funds to environmental protection, calling for the legalization of medical cannabis and posthumously pardoning the “Groveland Four,” a group of African American teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1949.
DeSantis’s once sky-high polling numbers took a hit recently after he moved to quickly re-open Florida beaches, a decision broadcasted across the country as incompetent and premature. Despite a spike in cases shortly after, DeSantis experienced a bit of political redemption, as Florida’s death rate had remained largely stagnant. Now, even with a recent spike, Florida has just under 6,000 COVID-19 related deaths as of July 27, compared to just over 32,000 for New York.
Commentators have since taken this as an opportunity to criticize the difference in media coverage between DeSantis and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with Politico writing that the mostly New York-based national media apparatus “loves to love its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, about as much as it loves to hate on Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.” Such a description plays into DeSantis’ ability to run as a political outsider in 2024. In recent weeks, however, Florida’s case numbers have spiked by the tens of thousands, bringing into question the governor’s prior decision making. With a mass increase in cases, as well as ongoing debates over Florida’s tracking methods, another test run for DeSantis’s political competency seems to be in the works.
Tom Cotton, U.S. senator from Arkansas:
It’s a bit of a misnomer to call Cotton a populist.
Cotton is among the latest Republicans on the scene to espouse heterodox conservative talking points about issues such as income inequality and immigration reform, but he has hardly shied away from intertwining with establishment figureheads. A Harvard graduate and U.S. Army veteran, Cotton has developed quick connections in the Beltway through stints at several law firms as well as a consulting gig at McKinsey & Company. He’s also formed a close relationship with Bill Kristol, the longtime neoconservative hawk who has re-emerged as a mediahead in recent years due to his unrelenting opposition to President Trump.
Cotton has since given up law and rewarded Kristol by championing an interventionist foreign policy in Washington. He’s been a hardliner on Iran since taking office and is among the fiercest critics of China in D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic gave Cotton the opportunity to storm the forefront of national politics, where he’s since denounced the role of the Chinese government and recently proposed a bill barring student visas for certain Chinese nationals over fears of espionage.
He also made headlines after publishing a controversial op-ed in the New York Times calling for domestic military deployment in major U.S. cities during the civil unrest provoked by the killing of George Floyd. Cotton’s piece created a flurry of arguments among Times staffers, with many claiming that the article endangered Black protestors and writers, eventually culminating in the resignation of the paper’s opinion editor. In the end, the Arkansas senator emerged victorious to his base, playing the nationally syndicated paper like a fiddle as he provoked both an internal and national debate on the status of speech among private news publications.
Raised by a set of Bill Clinton-voting Democratic parents, Cotton has routinely been touted in the media as the eventual heir to an ideology that’s been called “Trumpism without Trump.” And having grown up in rural Arkansas, it’s a natural fit. But where Trump made his name as a political outsider who criticized expansionist American foreign policy, Cotton has shown himself to be in line with conventional Republican thinking. Such a difference could harm him with dissident voters in the long run, but it’s likely that Cotton’s close establishment ties will let him rise to the front of Republican candidates should he decide to run in 2024.
Honorable mentions: Matt Gaetz (U.S. Representative – FL-01), Josh Hawley (U.S. senator from Missouri), Donald Trump Jr. (businessman).
Nikki Haley, former Ambassador to the United Nations and ex-Governor of South Carolina:
Just a handful of years ago, Nikki Haley looked like the future face of the Republican Party. Now things aren’t so clear.
As recently as February 2016, Haley, who was then in her sixth year as the governor of South Carolina, declared that then-candidate Trump was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” But only some months later, she found herself working under the same figure she once loudly denounced.
Haley is a living testimony to the difficulty of navigating conservative political circles in the Trump era. Despite a previous history of repudiating the president, Haley was quick to accept his offer of an ambassadorship position just several weeks after his election. After voluntarily stepping down in December 2018, Haley vied to stay politically relevant while walking a very fine line between denouncing the president and outright endorsing Trumpism.
But as is apparent to everyone, Trump has entirely rebranded the Republican Party. Despite initial opposition from the conservative intelligentsia, Trump now enjoys overwhelming support among Republican voters. Haley appears aware of this. After a period of relative silence following her resignation, she came out in support of the president’s character, describing him as “truthful” and stating she “never had any concern on whether he could handle the job ever.” As Peter Beinart noted in The Atlantic, Haley seems to be hedging her bets on a prediction that the post-Trump GOP will not be willing to renounce Trumpism nor further embrace it.
Haley already appears far less willing to welcome the culture war and rural white identity politics inherent to Trumpism. She previously removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after the Charleston massacre and is known for her opposition to the increasingly immigration-restrictionist platform of the Republican Party. Her potential candidacy could consequently be seen as a return to the friendlier, “compassionate conservatism” originally espoused by former President George W. Bush.
Haley certainly has a number of things working for her. Her previous stops at both the national and international level have thickened her resume and given her the image of a competent political figurehead. She’s also navigated South Carolina through a number of tense racial incidents, a skill that is especially relevant in today’s America. And as the daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants from India, she’s a woman of color in a party stereotyped as catering to the demands of white men.
While these attributes may potentially give her leeway in avoiding some of the usual labels applied to Republican candidates, Haley’s commitment to the GOP ideals of yesteryear puts her at odds with the increasingly influential tide of right-wing populism. Still, Haley’s extensive political experience and familiarity with Washington insiders could propel her to the top of a ticket come 2024.
Dan Crenshaw, U.S. representative, TX-02:
It can be argued that the 36-year-old Crenshaw, a Harvard grad and former US Navy SEAL, is not necessarily a member of the Republican establishment. Crenshaw has only served in Congress for a little under two years and lacks the hereditary political background of many of his colleagues. In what Crenshaw lacks in accumulated power and prestige, however, he makes up in his rhetorical skills and political positions, which many see as a return to pre-Trump conservatism. The Texas congressman is far more hawkish on foreign policy than his populist counterparts, and generally avoids supporting the more paternalistic components of economic nationalism.
For such a young up-and-comer, Crenshaw has already made the rounds with a number of prominent media outlets. The Texas congressman, who sports an infamous and intimidating eye-patch due to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, certainly has a unique aesthetic to his politics. He made his first major impression on the national political airwaves after an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” where Crenshaw lampooned comedian Pete Davidson after the latter controversially mocked him for losing “his eye in a war, or whatever” some weeks earlier. Later, Crenshaw made appearances on The View and Real Time with Bill Maher, proving he is willing to take his message to a national audience no matter the environment.
The articulate, clean-cut Crenshaw is certainly a strict departure from the more bombastic rhetoric of President Trump. And for financially interested Republicans, Crenshaw could represent a figurehead capable of winning back the swathes of wealthy suburban voters that have fled the GOP in recent years. That said, his commitment to an interventionist foreign policy and unwavering endorsement of free-market economics means that Crenshaw may not be the nation’s candidate of choice in a time of populist revolution.
Honorable mentions: Greg Abbot (Governor of Texas), Larry Hogan (Governor of Maryland), Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State).
Tucker Carlson, political commentator:
Perhaps the most important media figurehead in America, it is no secret that the Fox News host commands a special position in politics. With a frequent and direct line of contact with President Trump, Carlson already exerts enormous influence over the current administration. He was allegedly responsible for personally convincing Trump to avoid war with Iran, and more recently flew to Mar-a-Lago, where he persuaded the president to take the COVID-19 threat more seriously.
Carlson’s political evolution is indicative of the rapidly transforming nature of contemporary conservative ideology. Carlson himself, an heir to frozen food giant Swanson Enterprises, has abandoned the Libertarian beliefs of his youth and emerged as a major critic of the Republican Party’s commitment to free market economics. He’s called unregulated market capitalism an “economic system that weakens and destroys families” and has voiced his admiration for the economic policies of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In December 2019, he further broke from party lines, airing a scathing criticism of billionaire hedge fund manager and prominent GOP donor Paul Singer. He’s since gone after sitting Republicans during their appearances on his show, criticizing Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler over accusations of insider trading and blasting Indiana Senator Mike Braun for supporting qualified immunity.
Criticisms of capitalism aside, Carlson’s real target is America’s culture war and he’s turned his weekly television slot into a nightly assault on political correctness and identity politics. He’s also made a number of controversial critiques on immigration, claiming that mass immigration robs Americans of their wealth and makes the country dirtier — comments that provoked heavy criticism. His law and order rhetoric in the aftermath of nation-wide civil unrest further divided the country’s opinion of the commentator, as Carlson’s show lost a slew of sponsors while simultaneously becoming the highest-rated program in cable news history.
Consequently, many critics labeled the fiery commentator a racist demagogue, with some on social media comparing Carlson to Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic but labor rights-friendly Catholic priest who hosted an immensely popular radio show during the Great Depression. These accusations were further enhanced by recent revelations uncovering the bigoted online posting history of one of the show’s top writers. Meanwhile, others in political media have deemed him a “faux-populist,” pointing out the disarray between his own extensive wealth and connections and the “common man” image he plays on national TV.
Carlson’s television popularity has granted him a degree of influence that rivals even the country’s most popular politicians, a development that has apparently garnered the attention of the Republican Party’s wealthiest donors. Carlson’s favorability with the increasingly working-class Republican base cannot be disregarded either. In response to rumors of a 2024 bid, Elaina Plott of the New York Times noted that she “[couldn’t] tell you how many GOP voters I’ve spoken to in [the] past six months or so who say Tucker Carlson is the only person in media who makes sense to them anymore.”
So if 2016 proved anything, it’s that these pejorative labels might not hurt Carlson’s popularity enough to prevent him from ascending to the top of America’s political pyramid.
Honorable mentions: Michael Flynn (former National Security Advisor), Candace Owens (political commentator), Peter Thiel (venture capitalist/tech entrepreneur)*
*Eligibility dependent upon interpretation of natural-born-citizen clause
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. representative, NY-14:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be the most well known representative in America.
An icon of progressives and a thorn in the side of conservatives, the freshman congresswoman known best as AOC has risen to the top of media airwaves in the last two years. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the New York politician championed a progressive agenda from the day she set foot in Washington—advocating for universal healthcare, calling for the abolition of ICE, supporting free public college and perhaps most notably, proposing the Green New Deal.
Since coming to congress, AOC has served as a surrogate for the emerging democratic socialist movement. Alongside fellow congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley she’s become part of a collection colloquially known as “The Squad”. The group is often cited as an example of the new Democratic coalition, one significantly younger, more diverse and left-leaning than their peers and predecessors. A former bartender from the Bronx, AOC’s working class background is emblematic of the lack of upward mobility that has plagued her millennial generation. Despite graduating cum laude from Boston University in 2011, she “operated out of a paper grocery bag” during her 2018 campaign, according to a profile in Bon Appetit.
If Ocasio-Cortez were to pull off the seemingly impossible, and win the presidential election in 2024, she would just narrowly meet the age requirement necessary for the country’s top position. As of July 2020, AOC is still the youngest member of the House of Representatives — but she has accumulated a level of political clout that exceeds the vast majority of her peers. While future critics are likely to question her ability to bolster mass appeal in a national election, one thing remains certain: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to be a major player in American politics for decades to come.
Honorable mentions: Ro Khanna (U.S. representative – CA-17), Nina Turner (former Ohio state senator), Stacey Abrams (former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and state representative)
THE POLITICAL MACHINE:
Gavin Newsom, Governor of California:
Like Jerry Brown before him, Newsom looks like the next Democratic governor from California to take a shot at the presidency.
A fourth generation San Franciscan, Newsom became the youngest mayor of the Bay Area city in over a century after a run-off victory in the 2003 election. With the endorsement of national figures such as former President Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson, Newsom succeeded his mentor Willie Brown as mayor of San Francisco, establishing the political connections necessary to eventually ascend to the governorship.
Despite initially running as a business-friendly centrist, it was his progressive politics as mayor that first garnered Newsom national attention. In 2004, he opted to allow San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — a move that seems uncontroversial now, but at the time was in direct violation of state law and drew widespread condemnation from Democratic figures. Newsom’s political gamble a decade and a half ago appears to have since paid off, as he rode his popularity as mayor into a position as California’s lieutenant governor for eight years, before defeating Republican John Cox in a landslide victory for governor in 2018.
An idolizer of Bobby Kennedy, Newsom evokes some of the late RFK’s more admirable traits — the unique speaking style, the tranquil demeanor, the youthful energy that The New Yorker described as making the governor appear “still boyish at fifty-one.” He’s also established himself well inside California’s elite political class. The latest protege of Willie Brown, Newsom has found himself among the likes of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and California senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
By progressively climbing the golden state’s social ladder, Governor Newsom appears to be angling himself for a future White House bid. He’s frequently cited as a potential presidential nominee, but the political striver still has a lot to prove. Will he be able to successfully implement his loftier gubernatorial goals, like universal state healthcare? And what about addressing his state’s other ills, which include skyrocketing housing prices and one of the highest rates of poverty in the country? If Newsom wants to follow in the footsteps of other former governors who made the move to the White House, his current job is the audition.
Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York:
In April 2020, Andrew Cuomo looked like a shoo-in for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination.
The New York governor, first elected in 2010, boasted a shockingly high job performance rating of 71%, according to a poll from New York-based Siena College. His daily press briefings, in which he discussed the state’s COVID-19 crisis in a calm and paternal manner, garnered national praise and attention. Weaving colorful anecdotes and clever humor into his narrative, Cuomo’s hearings were frequently cited as a stark contrast to Trump’s press conferences, which many perceived as combative and bewildering.
Cuomo’s moment in the sun was short lived, however. The lifelong New Yorker enjoyed several months of praise for his response to the state’s severe COVID-19 situation, but support for the governor gradually eroded as the death toll rapidly increased. Cuomo’s favorability was further diminished by his choice to move significant numbers of patients into nursing homes. According to analysis by ProPublica, the decision resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 elderly New Yorkers — or 6% of the state’s total nursing home population. By contrast, states which banned such movements saw significantly less deaths. Florida, for example, saw only a 1.7% death rate among its nursing home population.
Despite pushback from right-wing media, Cuomo has managed to emerge from New York’s coronavirus disaster relatively unscathed. In June 2020, some three-in-four New Yorkers approved of his handling of the situation. And New York, unlike other states such as Arizona and California, has not seen an additional spike in cases since flattening the curve.
Part of Cuomo’s success thus far is that he is a beneficiary of familial ties with the political and media establishments, both at the state and national level. The son of three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew was born into political destiny. He first served as his father’s campaign manager before enjoying a policy advising role in the gubernatorial cabinet after a victory in 1982. Eventually climbing his way into the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, Cuomo was poised to take over the reins of his father’s legacy.
Since doing so, his popularity has advanced thanks to his representation in the media. During the duration of the initial COVID-19 pandemic in New York, for example, Cuomo was routinely interviewed on CNN by his brother, Chris. These media segments featured a brotherly dynamic between the two, with incidents ranging from playful teasing about which son is their mother’s favorite to quibs about the size of the other’s nose. While the broadcasts rapidly became must-see-TV, they also raised concern from across the political spectrum over the ethics of family ties in journalism.
Nevertheless, Cuomo has established himself as one of the country’s more recognizable Democratic figures. And he’s proven an ability to ward off the influence of increasingly powerful progressives, some of whom have defeated established moderate Democrats in recent years. In 2018, Cuomo was able to soundly defeat a primary from the left by former actress Cynthia Nixon, despite the leftist national excitement for the latter. Ultimately, Cuomo appears to be a sort of Democratic analogue to Nikki Haley. Both figures’ ability to navigate Washington could prevent them from falling prey to an attack from populist outsiders. Whether or not 2024 will be still ripe for such a figurehead to take power remains to be seen.
Honorable mentions: Gretchen Whitmer (Governor of Michigan), Andy Beshear (Governor of Kentucky), Joe Kennedy III (U.S. representative – MA-04)
THE WILD CARD:
Oprah Winfrey, media mogul:
In 2000, an affluent, universally recognized television host with a highly loyal fanbase took to CNN to announce a presidential run. His name was Donald Trump.
Life was quite different back then, and Trump was in the process of running for the nomination of the Reform Party, a centrist third-party originally founded by 1992 presidential election spoiler Ross Perot. Running on a platform of fair trade, national debt reduction and single-payer healthcare, Trump named none other than Oprah Winfrey as his ideal running mate. Things didn’t work out and Trump pulled out of the race, but it wouldn’t be the last time that Oprah’s name appeared in politics.
The Mississippi-born talk show host is one of the most recognizable figureheads in American pop culture, and although her signature talk show is no longer on the air, she once commanded an audience of 42 million viewers a week. Oprah’s daytime talk show first ran in 1986, and by 2003 she became the world’s first Black female billionaire. She has since branched out to a number of different investments, including various charitable organizations as well as her own television channel. And she has no shortage of political clout either. By one metric, Oprah’s 2008 endorsement of President Barack Obama was enough to garner an additional one million votes for the then-presidential candidate.
Despite her status as America’s most famous family-friendly television host, Oprah Winfrey is still likely to face scrutiny should she hit the campaign trail. The rise of an increasingly powerful progressive left is likely to oppose any attempted run by a billionaire, harming her much in the way that they did Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, others are likely to take issue with what they see as Oprah’s controversial history of self-help and pseudoscience promotion.
Nevertheless, Oprah has no shortage of followers and if 2016 proved anything, it’s that America is more than willing to elect a TV talking head president. Armed with wealth and charisma, Oprah might prove media figureheads in the White House are not a one time affair.
Honorable mentions: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (actor and former professional wrestler), Mark Cuban (entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks)
Even with a heavy dose of analysis, it’s still difficult to make any definitive choices over who to expect in 2024. The crowded fields in the 2016 Republican and 2020 Democratic primaries are evidence that the next presidential election cycle is likely to field a diverse array of establishment veterans and political newcomers. Nobody in early 2016 would’ve guessed that Donald J. Trump would be the Republican nominee, let alone the 45th president of the United States. It’s likely that looking back on this article in 2024 will elicit the same reaction about someone else.
For all we know, January 2025 could mark the inauguration of President Kanye West.
Written by: Brandon Jetter — firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie