The shadow candidate set to overturn American politics
Along with endless charm – and a large dose of luck – the most defining characteristic of the most successful recent presidencies has been a strong sense of improbability.
Not invincibility, mind you, nor inevitability. Rather, we expect a pathway to the White House so unlikely and unexpected that it becomes the stuff of legend long before that first spin around the Oval Office.
With his history in Hollywood, rather than politics, Reagan was an improbable president. So too was Clinton, who rode to victory in spite of his draft-dodging and philandering, stories that would have derailed a campaign five years earlier (see: Gary Hart). Then there’s Obama: black and barely a decade into politics, who somehow managed to wrestle the Democratic nomination from golden girl Hillary. And how could we forget about Donald Trump, who easily possesses the most improbable presidential origin story in the history of the republic.
Which leads us to 2024. Our current pair of front runners are so banal that there’s nothing improbable about their candidacies, except that they have the chutzpah to mount them. Biden was intended to be a place-holder president and has clearly forgotten his place, while Trump, facing indictment after indictment, is now so overwrought and overexposed that few actually want to see him run again, even as he drowns out the competition.
American voters respond to improbability precisely because it’s the quintessential American condition – unanticipated success, overcoming adversity, achieving the impossible. The problem is that improbability is in short supply this campaign cycle, drowned out by nepo-crackpots like RFK Jr. and false-starter doofuses like DeSantis. They shine bright early on, but quickly fizzle under pressure: the Jeb Bushes or Howard Deans of 2024.
But improbability is lurking on both sides, if you know where to spot it. Owing perhaps to their challenger status; the Right actually possesses a trio of candidates with strong improbable bona fides: Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott. Indian-Americans Haley and Ramaswamy are the better performing of the three and the most intriguing; though the neophyte Vivek is easily the more improbable.
With his relative youth and tech-industry background, Ramaswamy is first-of-his-kind whilst also being entirely of the moment. His anti-woke, anti-ESG, anti-establishment platform feels novel, created in part thanks to the excesses of Left-liberal cultural supremacy. Unlike DeSantis’ clumsy clamouring, Vivek has successfully packaged the bipartisan extremism cleaving our culture into a viable campaign with actual staying power. A minority and son of immigrants, Ramaswamy is an improbable Republican (almost) front-runner in every way imaginable.
Cut through all that aged Biden fat and there’s ample improbability coursing through the Democrats, as well. Marianne Williamson and her second-time-around candidacy feels particularly notable – what with her kooky cocktail of spirituality, race reparations, pleas for peace and outlandish psuedo-gaffes. But young voters love her, making Williamson the wildest of wild cards if Biden fails to make it through the primary season.
And then there’s Eric Adams, the never married, fashion-forward, nightlife-loving Mayor of New York City, who while certainly not running for president has recently embarked on a series of national-level stunts that can make even the most improbable candidacy suddenly happen.
The catalyst is the migrant crisis which has saddled NYC with over 110,000 newcomers and prompted an unlikely war of words between Adams and President Biden, whom the Mayor says has offered “no support” for his beleaguered city. Adams has also taken aim at Republican governors who’ve bussed migrants to New York – along with the larger national immigration system he calls “broken” – as he suggests the current migrant debacle could “destroy” his city.
Hyperbolic, perhaps, but not entirely unreasonable considering New York is already contending with rampant crime, homelessness, skyrocketing housing costs and empty office towers. So far the city has managed to avoid the wholesale urban decline now plaguing areas like San Francisco, but the $5 billion price tag of dealing with the migrant crisis might finally be what pushes Gotham over the edge.
Adams has made clear he won’t stand for it and, if the city erodes further, will likely continue on his crash course with opponents in both the White House and state houses. As his national star-power brightens, Adams could very well emerge as a long-overdue voice for battered big cities across America with both the bona fides and bravado to make a difference.
True, it’s too soon to gauge whether such a political constellation can actually coalesce into a viable candidacy – or even if Adams might want it. But as a tough-on-crime African-American who’s both a former cop and was raised in a tenement, Adams possesses the type of improbable backstory that can appeal to both Biden and Tim Scott voters – while captivating the Vivek and Haley crowds as well. His may be a shadow candidacy still deep in the shadows – but perhaps it’s time Adams’ political potential finally has a moment to shine.