White House Scholar Douglas Brinkley Leery of 21st Century Presidential Races

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley gave NBC 7 his take on this year's presidential campaigns

Noted presidential historian Douglas Brinkley watched news coverage of Monday’s Iowa caucuses while ensconced for the week in the sunny, post-storm warmth of La Jolla.

He’s serving as scholar-in-residence at the Bishop’s School, and the 2016 White House campaign figures to provide teaching-moment fodder for school’s best and brightest students.

In an interview Tuesday with NBC 7, Brinkley assessed the earliest-state performance of the only candidate who’s already been a resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – former First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I think I’ll just call it a tie in Iowa,” he said. “Looks like she’s going to lose New Hampshire. The big story is going to be South Carolina. Can Bernie Sanders attract African American voters?”

As he keeps close tabs on the candidates hoping to become the country's 45th President, Brinkley can't help thinking that whoever wins will have to start running for re-election three months after taking office.

He sees the self-funded tycoon's campaign of Donald Trump as a sign of what could emerge as a new reality in presidential politics -- in a "broken" political system that probably won't undergo significant change any time soon.

But Brinkley said it's about time that Trump himself undergoes significant change.

"I think at the very end, the blustery guy telling off all the Republicans that are running is going to have to go away,” Brinkley said. “And he's going to have to kind of re-position his personality in some ways, I think, to be able to pull it off at the end. The problem is, he's kind of defined life as 'winners and losers.' And now, suddenly in Iowa, he's a loser. And so he's got to say 'What does that mean?'"

Whatever meaning, if any, Trump finds in his second-place finish in Iowa, Brinkley projects the upstart, “Art of the Deal” candidate as the winner of next week’s Republican primary in New Hampshire.

Would that outcome be a bellwether for the rest of the GOP campaign?

“New Hampshire’s quirky,” Brinkley cautioned. “I think once March kicks in and you start getting a lot of big states all at once, the air’s going to be clear.”

He also thinks the race is “very ripe for a third-party candidate -- but your only third party person who could be taken seriously has to be a billionaire – somebody like (former New York City Mayor) Michael Bloomberg.”

The prolific award-winning author and professor at Rice University has reservations about how far 21st century presidential politics has come since the campaigns of the late19th century, citing as an example the nation’s 25th chief executive -- William McKinley – who, Brinkley noted, told reporters: “I’m not leaving my home in Ohio. You come to me. I don’t need to campaign.”

Now, Brinkley said, “The amount of mileage! And they run for years … it’s just in constant election-cycle mode, and I’m not sure we’re getting a good result out of that aspect of our democratic process.”

Brinkley marvels, not excitedly though, at the emphasis placed on what political strategists call telegenics.

“Everybody has to look good on TV. Sound good, have the right 'sound bite', use the most modern communications,” he observed.

“But I'm more concerned about the money that's in politics. I mean, you almost have to raise a billion dollars to be considered a credible presidential candidate."

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