WASHINGTON — It’s considered bad form for politicians to say things that are not true.
When they talk about their own ambitions, though, deception pretty much comes with the territory and no one seems to mind.
People who are patently feeling out their presidential prospects claim not to be even thinking about that, when you know they’ve got to be humming “Hail to the Chief” in the shower.
They say they don’t pay attention to polls — ha!
They suggest their families will drive their decision whether to run, setting up a dramatic tension that is more fiction than fact.
As the 2016 presidential campaign field begins to take shape, here are five things to know not to believe when you hear them:
Over Christmas 2010, Mitt Romney’s big family gathered ‘round and cast ballots on whether he should run again for the Republican nomination. The vote was 10-2 against, with Romney himself voting no.
The voters had spoken. But Romney ran.
The lesson: On this question, family matters, not so much.
In the lead-up to 2016, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has made much of his wife, Kelley, being a hard sell.
“There’s two votes in my family,” he said when asked in December about running. “My wife has both of them, and both of them are ‘no’ votes right now. … I’ll tell you in a year whether I’m able to persuade my wife.”
Reserved but politically savvy, Kelley Paul has stood in for him at campaign events and worked for a Republican consulting firm.
Among other Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin says he’ll have the big talk with his wife, Janna, in 2015. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his wife, Supriya, are praying and talking about it now, the governor says.
Jeb Bush already heard his mother, Barbara, tell everyone “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House. But the former Florida governor said he’s in his 60s and doesn’t have to do everything his mom says. “I’m trying to avoid the family conversation,” he said.
Running for president is a heavyweight (and intoxicating) decision that gives some families pause. But pinning the matter on the spouse and kids is generally part of a broader effort to put off answers and decisions until it’s time to commit one way or the other.
“My focus is entirely on working for Texans in the U.S. Senate.” When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made this declaration, his feet were planted in South Carolina, a big presidential primary state.
To be sure, South Carolina was a bit off his path. He’s more apt to be found in Iowa, an even bigger state in presidential politics. Cruz has been seen more often in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina than in the volatile border region of his own state since he won election as a senator in 2012. (Cruz cheekily tweeted Google Map directions to the border to help President Barack Obama find it, but the senator hasn’t been closer than 150 miles to the border himself since the child-migrant crisis began.)
Almost to a man and a woman, the people most being talked about as presidential candidates are building campaign-type travel schedules, meeting strategists and donors and doing most things they need to do to get ready, like writing memoirs.
They’re also being coy about what they’re up to, although a little less so as time goes on.
Hillary Rodham Clinton went from “no plans” to run to “stay tuned” to “I’m running — around the park” to statements making clear she’s considering it and will decide by the end of the year.
Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., says the bridge scandal that’s been dogging him will be “a footnote” by 2016. He’s feeling done with it.
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., says an investigation by prosecutors into whether he and aides conducted illegal political activities in 2011 and 2012 is “old news” and “case closed.”
Public figures can’t wish these things away. They can write their memoirs and their epitaphs, but not history. When scandal happens, they hold the reins of a runaway horse that will stop only when it’s good and tired.
Others (voters, for example) ultimately will decide whether the bridge kerfuffle becomes a footnote to Christie’s story or the headline, and whether Walker’s distraction is rehash or revelation.
When lawmakers pressed Clinton on motivations of the killers who attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, she shot back: “What difference at this point does it make?” That, too, is a question neither she nor her GOP critics can answer.
Cliches abound here.
You may have heard this one — the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. It’s too soon for that, but not for this: I don’t listen to polls.
“Polls are everywhere all the time,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in May. “I don’t really pay a lot of attention to them.” That’s what people say when they’re lagging in polls.
To be sure, horserace polls this far from the contest in November 2016 are mostly worth ignoring.
As Rubio pointed out, there’s a whole campaign to be waged first. But polls, like money, are the mother’s milk of politics. They drive fundraising, messaging and all-important perceptions of momentum.
Rubio doesn’t blow off polling. His leadership PAC Reclaim America, organized to elect more conservatives, paid the polling firm North Star Opinion Research $136,546 in the 2014 election cycle as of mid-May.
Democrat Al Gore called the vice presidency a “political dead end” in one campaign, then signed on for it the next campaign. Republican Nelson Rockefeller said he refused offers to be such “standby equipment,” then became that for President Gerald Ford.
George H.W. Bush said “I’m not leaving the door open” to becoming the running mate to his GOP rival, Ronald Reagan, then did.
This disdain for being No. 2 is bound to arise when the primaries are underway and people start losing for real. For a struggling candidate, acknowledging any interest in being someone’s running mate can be the kiss of death until it’s obvious the campaign is dying anyway. Then the vice presidency doesn’t sound so bad.