Too Late to Be President

Joe Biden, John Kasich, and Chris Christie say they're still seriously considering running for president, but have they run out of time?

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Have you declared your intention to run for president in 2016 yet? No? Do you have an exploratory committee? Also no? You might as well pack it in. There's always 2020. Or 2024.

There are 574 days until the general election and 292 days until the Iowa caucus. But it seems possible that the field is already set, more than 18 months before voters choose the next president. Barring an unforeseen event that turns the election upside down, candidates with a substantial chance at the presidency—and some without a substantial chance—have already either officially declared their candidacy (Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio) or already taken serious steps to run, with the official announcement expected in the near future (Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Scott Walker). Most voters haven't even started paying attention to the presidential race, and yet the field could already be locked in.

Think this is absurd? Look at the trio of candidates who are frantically racing to keep their names in the headlines early this week, just after the Clinton and Rubio announcements. Who protests most is up to debate, but all of them protest too much.

First, Vice President Joe Biden—who has made a habit of letting all of his presidential buzz die down, then doing just enough to fan the embers with a well-chosen remark or quote or speech—appeared unannounced at a briefing for regional reporters Monday. Asked about running for a promotion, he replied: "I haven't made up my mind on that. I have plenty of time to do that, in my view .... When you run for president you've got to run for president—and I'm not ready to do that—if I am ever going to be ready to do that."

Biden being Biden, he cheerfully admitted there might not actually be plenty of time. "If I am wrong, I'm dead wrong," he said.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, another congressional star of the 1990s was continuing his on-again, off-again flirtation with running for president. Governor John Kasich has visited some early primary states and touted a balanced-budget amendment, but he hasn't done much to create the infrastructure for a campaign. The Cleveland Plain Dealer rightly describes this strategy as playing hard to get, but for it to work, someone has to be begging you to get in. The Republican mocked reporters—"I’ve been serious about this all along, you’re just catching on," he said—but what he told a crowd outside of Detroit didn't sound like someone ready to launch a full-scale run: "I’d like you to like me, but I’m not going to lay awake at night and if people here say, ‘I just don’t think he’s the guy. I’m cool with that.’"

Biden and Kasich, though, have always been seen as long shots: Biden because of Hillary Clinton's prohibitive presence on the Democratic side, Kasich because of the whole range of obviously eager Republican contenders. But Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey—that guy used to be considered a frontrunner. He's had a rough run of it since, buffeted by the George Washington Bridge scandal and a series of political and economic setbacks in the Garden State. I noted Monday that Marco Rubio's great strength is that although not all Republican primary voters back him, a huge portion of them are willing to do so. Christie faces the opposite problem—more than 50 percent of GOP voters, in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, say they wouldn't consider backing Christie. Meanwhile, his donors are reportedly getting edgy and wondering when he'll take the plunge, if at all.

Now he's insisting to Matt Bai that he's not only able to run and win, he's ready to do so. The vague and late timeline by which Christie says he'll decide (May or June), his polling, and his big campaign idea—a high-risk and oddly timed call for entitlement overhaul—say otherwise.

Against this background, it's no wonder that Ben Carson hastened to say he'll announce whether or not he'll run—but who are we kidding, he will—soon, on May 4 in Detroit, hopefully with Star Wars jokes.

It seems remarkable that the field of candidates might close before the campaign itself has really opened. But the increasing importance of locking down donors and getting a fundraising apparatus in place means that it's harder and harder for a candidate to stay on the fence. With so many candidates in the field, the top campaign talent and best fundraisers may already be locked up, and precious months of cultivating an officially independent super PAC are lost.

The result is that candidates who almost certainly can't win (Carson, who's never run for office and has seemed unsteady on issues) are well-advised to at least enter the race, while candidates who might fare decently (Kasich, a well-liked governor who's run for president before) may be boxed out.