Joe Scarborough for President? Sure, Why Not?

The MSNBC host has Beltway buzz for his flirtation with the 2016 presidential race. Republican primary voters may be a different story.
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NASHUA, N.H.—In the end, Joe Scarborough's name wasn't on the ballot for the presidential straw poll of the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference.

The organizers of this small, regional GOP meeting had planned to include him after his appearance on the event's schedule caused a minor outbreak of Beltway buzz, chiefly a mention in Politico's daily Playbook newsletter. (Scarborough says he had nothing to do with it.) But MSNBC, the network that airs his show, Morning Joe, grew uneasy and prevailed on the organizers to get his name removed.

Here in New Hampshire, Scarborough, a former three-and-a-half-term Florida congressman who's been openly flirting with getting back into politics, is telling me all this with an air of amusement. From a political standpoint, he regrets it a little. "I could have gotten some good press, you know?" he tells me. "The reception was good, I was signing some books. It was very positive." Rand Paul ends up winning the straw poll, with Chris Christie a close second.

Nonetheless, at least among the consultant-class elites and political obsessives who are Morning Joe's target demographic, the idea of a Scarborough candidacy has gained some small amount of traction. And after all, why not? Plenty of candidates have used a presidential run in recent years as the springboard to a TV contract; surely it was only a matter of time until someone went in the other direction.

At the GOP gathering here on Saturday, Scarborough is scheduled to moderate a panel about the New Hampshire primary. But before the panelists can take their seats on stage, he takes the podium solo for a 12-minute speech about how Republicans can win again. "Our message has to be optimistic!" he says, punching the air with a fist. The panelists, four strategists who worked on 2012 presidential campaigns, stand gamely off to the side, waiting their turn.

Scarborough's speech sounds for all the world like a campaign speech—and a not-bad one at that. During the audience Q-and-A, a man stands up and says, "Thank you for giving my wife a tingle every morning." Scarborough blushes hotly underneath his smooth tan, face scrunching gleefully behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "I categorically deny it!" he says.

After the panel and book signing, Scarborough sits down with me in a hotel conference room. He is accompanied by two clean-cut young assistants in suits, whom he proceeds to kick out of the room—"I didn't have handlers even when I was in politics!" He crosses right ankle over left knee and leans back in his chair, running a hand through the spectacular wave of gray hair that crests above his forehead. Nearly every sentence is punctuated by a joke and seems to end in an exclamation point. Is he serious? Does he just like the attention? Is he trying to boost his ratings? Whatever his motives, Scarborough is clearly enjoying himself.

"Ever since I got out of politics, people have asked me if I'm going to get back in," Scarborough says. "The answer is yeah, at some point I'm going to get back in. It just hasn't been the right time yet."

Scarborough was a 31-year-old lawyer practicing in Pensacola when he ran for Congress in 1994, an underdog in a crowded field for an open seat that Democrats had held since 1873—"a tough damn district," as he puts it. He kept the seat until 2001, when he suddenly stepped down, citing family reasons. A broadcasting career quickly followed; by 2003, he was hosting Scarborough Country in prime time on MSNBC, and in 2007 Morning Joe debuted.

Now 50 and twice divorced, Scarborough lives in Connecticut and wakes every morning at 3 a.m. for Morning Joe, which he co-hosts with Democrat Mika Brzezinski. (Disclosure/humblebrag: I have been on Morning Joe.) The show's air of chummy, Acela-corridor knowingness has made it destination viewing for the political class; it is shown in the morning on the televisions in the House of Representatives gym. Still, nary an election cycle passes without party elders trying to draft Scarborough for something—a Senate race in Florida, in New York, in Connecticut—and he's always tempted. "I absolutely loved being in Congress," he tells me. "It was my favorite job, ever."

In 1994, Scarborough and the rest of Newt Gingrich's young charges were the Republican radicals. New York Representative Peter King likened the influx of new, largely Southern representatives to "hillbillies at revival meetings," an insult Scarborough cites in his speech. (King, for his part, believes Scarborough took his categorical swipe too personally: "He mentions it every time I go on the show, and sometimes when I'm not on," King, who nurses his own long-shot presidential ambitions, tells me.)

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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