Turn On the TV and What Do You See? Ed Rendell!

Follow the guv's trail of hints leading to a run for president in 2012

Speculation about a 2012 presidential Democratic primary challenge against Barack Obama was stoked by Russ Feingold last week. After the longtime Wisconsin senator lost his seat on election night, he gave an unusually upbeat and even feisty concession speech saying, “It’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012, and it is on to our next adventure.”

Feingold’s staff quickly quashed the rumors, but that doesn’t mean Feingold isn’t thinking about a run.

With the current political climate, the possibility of a big-name Democrat running for president is real. The name that comes up most is Howard Dean. Dean is a darling of the possibility of the liberal party base that is disenchanted with Obama. Dean, a former governor from Vermont, has an ax to grind with Obama and has been a loud and constant critic. Dean was fired from his post as head of the Democratic National Committee by Obama, shunned for a cabinet post and basically ignored. Dean has said he is supportive of the president’s re-election in 2012, but has also said that Obama is “out of touch with America.” Again, I believe he is thinking about it.

But I believe there is someone else thinking about a run, who hasn’t been mentioned a lot: Ed Rendell.[SIGNUP]

If you have been paying attention, the politically savvy Pennsylvania governor has been leaving a trail of hints during his many national TV appearances.

In August on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Rendell was very critical of President Obama’s Afghanistan War policy saying that he used to comfort the parents of Pennsylvania National Guardsmen killed in the wars by reminding them that their son or daughter died for a reason, but that now, “I don’t know what to say.” It was an emotionally powerful indictment of the president’s decision to escalate and extend the war, a move that has infuriated the left.

Later on Morning Joe, Rendell said he wouldn’t be surprised if an antiwar candidate challenged Obama in 2012. “It’s really possible. It depends on how far [the war in Afghanistan] deteriorates,” he said. The most likely candidate, according to Rendell, is Dean. But I believe the stronger candidate would be Rendell. I believe he is thinking about it. And I think his run would have much more to do with the economy and President Obama’s approval rating than Afghanistan, although the war would certainly be a factor.

Let’s pick up a few more of the bread crumbs that Rendell left for us. In July, the governor showed disdain for Obama’s appearance on the daytime talk show The View. “I think there should be a little bit of dignity to the presidency. I wouldn’t put him on Jerry Springer either … I think the President of the United States has to go on serious shows,” Rendell said.

In February Rendell was critical of the president for allowing Republicans to win the message war over the economic stimulus package. Rendell said, “…the best communicator in the history of political campaigning turned out in his first year in office to not communicate very well.”

And then earlier this month, just a few days before the midterm election, Governor Rendell said that former President Bill Clinton is a much better campaigner in Pennsylvania than Obama. Rendell said, “Oh, well, that’s because President Clinton has become a beloved figure even among independents and some Republicans. They think he did a great job, and when you look back in retrospect, the country has done terrific under President Clinton.”

I guess that means the country isn’t doing so “terrific” under President Obama.

Governor Rendell was one of the first Democrats to come out for Hillary Clinton in her run against Barack Obama, and he helped her win the Pennsylvania primary. He has always been fond of the Clintons, so his glowing remarks about the former president are not surprising. But the fact that the media-smart Rendell would not also use that moment to praise Obama was telling. He was taking a shot by omission.

Again and again, Rendell has chosen a national platform to carefully craft a friendly fire campaign against Obama. If the campaign ever becomes a real challenge, it would not bode well for the president or his party. In 1968, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy’s impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary forced President Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Richard Nixon went on to defeat Hubert Humphrey in the general election. In 1972, Gerald Ford took a primary fight with Ronald Reagan all the way to the convention and then went on to lose to Jimmy Carter. In 1976, President Carter just barely survived a challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy. He lost the general election to Ronald Reagan. In 1992, Pat Buchanan shocked the first President Bush by winning New Hampshire. The senior Bush went on to lose to Bill Clinton.

In truth, those presidents may have lost re-election anyway as other factors made them vulnerable. Johnson by an unpopular war, Ford by his Nixon pardon, Carter by a crisis in Iran, and Bush by a slow recovery from a recession.

A slow recovery is the same reason Barack Obama may face a primary challenge. That is the key. If the economy turns around and the unemployment rate drops, Rendell and others will fall in line. But if the economy continues to stumble, watch and listen to Rendell. If he continues to be critical of the president on national TV, he is solidifying himself as an alternative.

Ed Rendell will be 67 in January. I don’t for a second believe that this lifetime politician is through running for office. It is in his blood. A chance to run for president may be too tempting to pass up.