Along the Tracks

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

20/20 foresight: Politicians to watch

Over the past two weeks, I’ve published a pair of columns considering which 20 Republicans and Democrats most likely will impact the direction of their parties and their country in the next 20 years. The columns ran in the Northwest Signal and Bryan Times.

Part 1: The Democrats
Set aside, for a moment, the present election and join me in looking a little further down the road.

After research, a few conversations and some good old-fashioned gut instinct, I present the 20 people who will have an impact on the national political scene in the next two decades. This week we’ll look at Democrats. Next week, the GOP is up.

Some of the names are glaringly obvious - even I need a ringer now and then. However, a number of the men and women included are still somewhat “under the radar” or have not expressed ambitions beyond their respective locales. Still, each brings a certain combination of characteristics to the table which cry out for a wider audience. Then, of course, there’s that unmeasurable quality which causes little known people to come to the attention of a small-town editor like me.

For those who like to point out the error of my ways, I strongly suggest clipping this column and providing a detailed critique. I expect the letters to roll in round about 2024.

Until then, enjoy the show.

1. Harold Ford Jr., Tenn. - This upstart is a full-fledged New Democrat who was seen as a little too young, and a little too conservative, to lead the House Democrats in 2002 when Dick Gephardt stepped down. Instead, the party chose Nancy Pelosi (oops!). Ford brings energy and positive vision to a party in desparate need of those qualities. His Clintonian agenda focuses on middle-of-the-road issues which hold the hope of bringing the party back into the majority.

2. Bill Richardson, N.M. - This governor and former U.N. ambassador is a Clinton protege, minus the interns. Richardson’s Hispanic heritage allows him to tap into a natural and growing constituency, and his experience in foreign affairs makes him instantly credible. This man could well be president.

3. Jennifer Granholm, Mich. - Forget about Arnold. The naturalized-citizen governor to watch is Granholm. She stormed into office in that place up north (“Michigan”), and has presided through difficult times with grit and determination, plus a fair share of bipartisan glad-handing. The result? Michigan is doing better than most Industrial Belt states economically, the budget is in good shape and people feel better about their state government. Somebody give her a cabinet post, already!

4. Gavin Newsom, Calif. - This young mayor of San Francisco lept into the spotlight by handing out marriage licenses and performing ceremonies for gay couples until a court stopped him. In my jaded view, it was all a political ploy; others say he stood on his principles. Either way, he is a star in the left wing of the Democrats, and will be senator when Dianne Feinstein or Barbara Boxer decide to step aside.

5. Michael Coleman, Ohio - Ohio Democrats are dying for a comeback; when Jerry Springer is the great hope, you know the cupboard is pretty bare. But not quite empty, as Coleman’s sensible mayoral administration in Columbus has helped keep that city strong through the recession. If Ohio Democrats have any sense at all, this man will lead the ticket for governor in 2006. If they don’t, he’ll lead the ticket in 2010. Beyond that, Coleman would deepen “the bench” for national appointments - or maybe more.

6. Barak Obama, Ill. - Did you see his speech at the Democratic National Convention? Are you wondering why he’s a Democrat? Me too. Evidently, he thinks he can change the party, taking the best pieces of its history and welding them to a new outlook aiming at opportunity. If he and his allies (see Ford, above, and Clinton and Emanuel, below) can really complete this transformation, it will also change America, and for the better. If he can’t, I predict he’ll switch to the party closer to his present viewpoint - the Republicans.

7. Janet Napolitano, Ariz. - All the pluses of Granholm, without the “Made in Canada” sticker. Napolitano, working in a heavily Republican state, has earned widespread praise in her two years as governor. Sen. John McCain will have to retire someday, and she’ll be waiting in the wings - if she isn’t in Washington already as a Cabinet secretary or vice president.

8. Elliot Spitzer, N.Y. - This guy’s following the Rudy Giuliani playbook from the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Big Apple, only from the other side of the plate. He already makes national news with his determined attacks on corporate fraud. He’ll be the next governor of New York. From there, he’ll only be a few cold Iowa mornings away from a presidential nomination.

9. Hillary Clinton, N.Y. - Here’s my ringer, and I’m sure it won’t please many Republicans. Face the facts: She’s even more clever than her husband. She has the party locked up tight, despite her occasional dabbling in moderation (she’s not as liberal as portrayed). She is an effective communicator. Most of all, unlike her husband and other Dems we won’t name, she is straightforward in her political philosophy. Everybody’s wondering where the “Kennedy Democrats” are. She’s it. With allies in the House (Ford and Emanuel, below) and Senate (Lieberman and Obama, soon), she will begin changing the party on Nov. 3, whoever wins. If she doesn’t become president, I’d be surprised, but even then, her imprint will dominate the party for the next two decades.

10. Rahm Emanuel, Ill. - Yet another Clintonite. Why? Because they know what they are doing. As a congressman, Emanuel has had limited exposure - but I’ve seen him more lately, talking about centrist issues close to the Clintonian heart. Again, Hillary can use his influence in Congress, and his next assignment will be a cabinet post. Otherwise, he’s a shoe-in to move up the ranks in the House.

Part 2: The Republicans
We turn our attention to the Grand Old Party. Now in power, the GOP will need to adapt to reflect a changing society - but there are plenty of “seeds” already planted.

1. Bill Owens, Colo. This conservative governor has led a state with a diverse and rapidly-growing population through the recession without raising taxes or running into a deficit squeeze. His progress and popularity has mirrored the career of one George W. Bush. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue down that path - all the way to the White House.

2. Michael Steele, Md. - GOP delegates and millions of viewers got a chance to see this energetic young lieutenant governor offer a powerful speech promoting optimism, opportunity and inclusiveness - the heart of the basic conservative message for the 21st century. He’ll be on your TV more, speaking from the Senate or a cabinet post in Washington.

3. Kelsey Grammer, Calif. - Yes, there’s an actor who will soon become a force for the GOP, but it’s not Arnold. Grammer, having wrapped up a television career across two series as the slightly-too-smart but lovable “Frazier” has a real interest in politics. Watch for a mayoral run early, perhaps, but I have a feeling the Senate is calling. His answer? “I’m listening.”

4. Mel Martinez, Fla. - Karl Rove is a real talent scout, and Martinez’ rising star is the latest example. This former Housing Secretary, now U.S. senator from Florida, strengthens the GOP’s clout with immigrants and Latinos, providing a conduit for the Republican message into a growing segment of the national population. Martinez will rise quickly in the Senate, and could provide a solid VP choice for a the next nominee in ‘08.

5. Condoleeza Rice, Calif. - Everybody wants to know the plans of the most powerful woman in the world. She’s ambitious, but level headed. She’ll probably challenge for the open Senate seat in California when Sen. Diane Feinstein retires, and spend at least a term in the chamber before looking at her larger options. She might try to replace the Governator when he steps down. I hope - really, really hope - she instead decides to go for all the marbles and run for president in ‘08. Hillary versus Condi? I report, you decide.

6. David Vitter, La. - Frankly, I figured this young powerhouse from the Bayou State would at least have to compete in a runoff to claim his spot as the first Republican senator from Louisiana since Reconstruction. Instead, he wiped the floor with his three (count ‘em!) Democratic opponents and surpassed the 50 percent popular vote in his state’s screwy system, winning the seat the first time out. He aims high, and will do well in Washington.

7. Deborah Pryce, Ohio - Denny Hastert won’t be speaker forever, and Tom Delay has just about worn out his welcome, even among party loyalists. Pryce, already a member of the leadership team, is a quiet but confident legislator and consensus builder, very much in the mold of Hastert. Party faithful love her, and when the time comes, she’ll get the nod to lead the House.

8. Rudy Giuliani, N.Y. - This is the biggest ringer on my GOP list. Everybody loves Rudy - except social and religious conservatives, which could well spell doom for any presidential nomination. Even so, Giuliani has the taste for politics again, and he’ll either be serving in GOP administrations or he’ll take a shot at getting that Senate seat he handed over to Hillary Clinton. And who knows, maybe Republican primary voters will look past his “insufficiencies” for an almost sure win. Stranger things have happened.

9. Michael Powell, Va. - This young lightning-rod for controversy, presently serving as FCC chairman, is the most conservative member of this list - perhaps surprising, since his father, Colin, is seen as a moderate. His resume is stellar, his politics play to the resurgent social right of the GOP - in other words, he’s golden, and the future is wide open. He’s also young, so his service will stretch across the 20 years and probably beyond. In what positions that service will take place largely depends on his ambition.

10. George Prescott Bush, Fla. - How could I outline the future of the Republican Party and not include a Bush? There’s been one in every generation for 60 years, and the next generation is no different. This George is young - just 28 - but already popular and in the spotlight thanks to his dad, Jeb, who happens to be governor of Florida. That means he’ll reach political primetime near the end of our two-decade window. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Another George Bush in the White House? It won’t surprise me, and now it won’t surprise you either.

Paul A. Miller is managing editor of the Montpelier Leader Enterprise and the Napoleon Northwest Signal. E-mail comments to

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