The life's blood of politics is perception. Certainly, a president perceived as strong is more likely to succeed than one who isn't -- thus Ronald Reagan was far more successful than Jimmy Carter.
But the perception thing also extends to who will or won't run and how the probable competition stacks up.
At a recent luncheon with some Republican heavy hitters -- those who will have a sizable hand in raising the money and setting the party's agenda for the 2016 presidential sweepstakes -- the unanimous perception was that Hillary Clinton would not only run but ultimately would be the Democratic candidate for the White House.
"She is in this thing, barring some unexpected circumstance like an act of God," an influential GOP policy guru said. "How we beat her is what needs our full attention." It is a mantra being echoed throughout the party's hierarchy from the middle to the right. It seems to be supported by unmistakable signs from Democrats, who will build the treasury needed in this day of exorbitant campaign expenses, and from a media that still hangs on to every Hillary moment despite the three-year distance from the election.
News of Barack Obama's hosting of a casual, friendly one-on-one luncheon July 29 with his former secretary of state graced newspaper pages and TV newscasts across the country. Whether the two discussed global problems or Clinton's plans was unknown, but it was the kind of continuing "in the news" boost that needed to convince voters she is still a force -- as if they needed reminding.
More importantly, there were reports that the former first lady's boosters have begun raising funds. A group called Ready for Hillary has launched what The New York Times described as the first step in building "a grassroots network" that would keep other prospective Democratic contenders at bay and provide a base list of donors for the general election. The group already has received more than 65,000 orders for buttons, bumper stickers and other campaign materials, The Times noted. The organization is designed, among other things, to take advantage of the Obama network that was so successful in the last two elections.
Here we are, with 2014's crucial midterm congressional elections still ahead, and already we're talking about the next president. Clearly, Democrats believe they have a viable candidate ready to go and Republicans agree, having spent the last 4 1/2 years decrying Obama's presidency and grudgingly muttering that the country would have been better off with Clinton.
Plaguing the Republicans is the same problem Democrats have faced over years: divided ranks and differing political philosophies aggravated by those who refuse to compromise.
At the GOP luncheon, diners agreed that for Republicans to recapture the White House, it's crucial to retain control of the House and wrest the Senate from Democrats. But the question remained as to how to do that without being more inclusive of a rapidly changing voter demographic.
The Republican concern is that Clinton -- given her popularity and the general assessment, even among critics, that she did well in shouldering the nation's foreign affairs -- will be difficult to defeat. The GOP needs the strongest possible candidate, one who can offer at least the perception of better solutions to those voters needed to decide an election. That includes women and minorities.
The luncheon group contended there are Republicans who fit the bill. Whether or not they can overcome primaries that require more than just a note of acquiescence to rigid ideology is another question.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.