Welcome to Announcementpalooza: that wonderful time of year, 19 months before Election Day and at least a year before anyone cares, when a number of people audacious and delusional enough to think they should lead the country announce they’re running for president.
On Monday morning it was Ben Carson, the celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon who became an overnight political star when he railed against Obamacare at a National Prayer Breakfast two years ago. Draft Ben Carson, the super-PAC effort launched by superfan John Philip Sousa IV, raised $12 million — $3 million more than Ready for Hillary raised in 2014 — so maybe it was only fitting that Carson had the most spectacular campaign announcement yet. Selected of God, the gospel choir you may remember from that Eminem Super Bowl commercial Chrysler did a few years ago, revived their performance onstage at the Detroit Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, reminding Americans that “Lose Yourself” is a much better song when liberated from Eminem’s voice. Then Veritas, a five-piece classical boy band, sang “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” to raised hands.
Carson didn’t need to convince anyone that he and Hillary have little in common. But his campaign launch showed the strength of her gravitational pull: Even conservatives on the fringe are shaping their announcements in opposition to hers. It makes good political sense. It’s not that conservatives need a reason to hate Clinton — it’s that the field of challengers competing to be her opponent is already five people deep, and expected to grow. It’s too early to start attacking each other without turning off would-be supporters, so finding the right way to distinguish themselves from Clinton has become incredibly important. In Carson’s case, that meant a big rally showcasing his personality in contrast to Hillary’s almost self-abnegating announcement. It meant playing up his lack of experience, as opposed to Clinton’s years of it.
When Veritas finished, Carson’s campaign ad played on a giant screen on the stage. “Historians will write about this critical turning point for our nation and how we responded to the dynamic forces changing our world,” said a voice that could have been Morgan Freeman, but was almost definitely not. “We can no longer afford the continuing dysfunction of opposing partisan rancor … If America is to survive the challenges of the modern world we need to heal. We need to be inspired. And we need to revive the exceptional spirit that built America.” He spoke over images of a child in a bomber helmet playing with a toy airplane. The little boy waving a tiny American flag in slow motion — the one who shows up in every campaign video — also made an appearance. “We must heal, and healing requires a leader with calm, unwavering resolve, someone more concerned about the next generation than the next election,” the narrator said, as the camera zoomed in on an image of the Lincoln Memorial.
A few minutes later, Carson appeared onstage with his wife, Candy. He related some of the details of his inspiring life story — growing up in poverty in Detroit, among drug dealers and rats and cockroaches — before pivoting to his qualifications for the job. “I don’t have a lot of experience busting budgets and doing the kind of things that have gotten us in all the trouble we’re in now,” he said.
He is not the only one to try to draw the distinction. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO running as the woman who could take on Hillary, also announced on Monday morning. Like Hillary, she released a direct-to-Facebook campaign video, which begins with her … watching Hillary Clinton’s campaign ad on a TV. She clicks it off, turns to the camera, and says, “Our founders never intended for us to have a professional political class. They believed that citizens and leaders needed to step forward.”
Mike Huckabee, who’s hoping to repeat his 2008 performance as the favorite candidate of social conservatives, is announcing on Tuesday in Hope, Arkansas (which happens to be his hometown, as well as Bill Clinton’s). A video previewing his announcement begins with the image of Bill and Hillary holding hands and recounts — over dramatic music — how he took on the Arkansas Democratic machine. Marco Rubio reminded potential voters of how young he is (as opposed to the woman who spent the ‘90s in the White House) by joking about “taxing and borrowing and regulating like it’s 1999.” Everyone knows the kids love Prince! (And presumably they are too young to remember that we had a budget surplus in 1999.)
The only candidate who seemed determined not to reference Hillary during his rollout was her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders — and even he had to spend part of his announcement last week begging reporters not to obsess over comparing the two.
So the Republican race to be the anti-Hillary has begun in earnest — and it’s unlikely to stop until the primaries early next year, when they get desperate enough to start attacking each other. Until then, don’t be surprised if we see an even folksier, less Clintonian candidate emerge. He’ll be the one eating a burrito in his campaign announcement video, with a tiny child waving a flag behind him as he explains that he barely knows the basics of governance.