Thursday, November 5, 2015

Only a Year to Go

“I want to repeat this because the public apparently never believes it. Since I took office, we’ve cut our deficits by two-thirds. The deficit has not been going up; it has been coming down—precipitously. We’ve cut our deficits by two-thirds. They’re below the average deficits over the past 40 years.”
—President Obama on October 2

“The U.S. national debt shot up $339.1 billion Tuesday—the largest daily increase in the national debt in history, according to Treasury Department data.”
USA Today, in a November 5 article about the overall national debt, which is distinct from annual deficits
Republicans like to fall in line, goes the old aphorism, and Democrats like to fall in love.

In the past couple of election cycles, that rule of thumb has turned out to be pretty accurate. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Republicans cast about wildly from one new face to another—wanting to fall in love—before eventually coalescing around next-in-line Mitt Romney. Four years earlier, similarly, they passed the polling lead around until settling on next-in-line John McCain. At the same time, Democrats gave every indication of falling in line behind Hillary Clinton—until they fell in love with the much-less-experienced Barack Obama.

Will those patterns hold true this time around? It’s difficult to see how. For one thing, there is no logical next-in-line candidate for the Republicans. They have no incumbent president or vice-president in the field. Nor is there is a clear second-place finisher from the last cycle. In fact, polling so far—whatever it is worth this far out from the actual voting—suggests that Republicans are not only intent on not nominating a next-in-line but prefer to have someone with the least political experience possible. Meanwhile, if Democrats mean to fall in love with their nominee, then they are doing their best to fall in love with the person who is not only clearly next in line but who has been taking aim at the presidency forever. Early on they gave every indication of wanting to fall in love with Elizabeth Warren or even Joe Biden, but they are not running.

Progressives have sort of fallen in love with Bernie Sanders, but they know he is almost certainly not electable. Despite their penchant for liking to fall in love, Democrats mostly want to win, and so they like their candidates to be electable. They only let themselves fall in love with Senator Obama when it became clear that he could win the general election. Four years earlier they nominated John Kerry despite the fact that he was not strong as anyone’s first choice, but they told pollsters that they thought that other people would like him as the nominee. In other words, they saw him as electable.

Hillary Clinton is certainly electable. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she has the intellect, talent and experience to be president. She is much better known than any of the Republican candidates—with the possible exception of Donald Trump. But, while her advantages may seem overwhelming on paper, there are a couple of historical factors working against her. For one, it is rare for a candidate to win a third consecutive presidential term for her party, and it’s unheard of when the incumbent president has less-than-stellar approval ratings, as is the case with President Obama. For another, you have to go back to the 1950s (the wildly popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower) to find a case of a non-incumbent being a front-runner for such a long period and actually winning the office in the end. American political history is littered with “inevitable” presidents who never made it—including Clinton herself in her last bid.

Of course, historical patterns only hold true until they don’t anymore. An awful lot can—and will—happen in the next year, and no one can say how things will look twelve months from now. While the Republican field may look like a clown car to die-hard Democrats, the fact is that there is actually more interest and energy and youth on that side of the political spectrum. And Tuesday’s elections can bring no comfort to Clinton and her team. In the off-year state and local voting across the country, conservatism dominated nationally—just as it has in every election for the past decade or so when the name Barack Obama was nowhere on the ballot. Will young and minority voters turn out for Clinton in the same numbers that they did for Obama? Not only does she not have his natural charisma but it is difficult to maintain grassroot energy levels after the promise of an exciting new leader inevitably doesn’t quite live up to everyone’s highest hopes. In the Democratic debate, the candidates railed against the country’s problems as if they were hoping that voters didn’t remember who was actually in charge of the executive branch for the past seven years.

In the end, the presidency will come down to a choice between two people, so the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses will only matter in comparison to their opponent. So Clinton’s chances are entirely (well except for a very unlikely indictment over her emails or a health problem) up to which candidate the Republicans put forward. The smart brains who have worked it all out going forward seem convinced that it will be a fortysomething Cuban-American. The only question is, which one?

Ted Cruz has been painted as a crazy man in much of the media for years now and, perversely, that could actually be to his advantage. He is articulate and very intelligent and, if voters actually got to know him, he would exceed their expectations. Marco Rubio appears to have no down side whatsoever except perhaps a lack of experience. And didn’t Obama himself cut off that avenue of attack by getting elected (having served an even shorter portion of his Senate term than Rubio) and then getting reelected? In the end, his experience level is a problem only if voters who are unhappy with Obama’s presidency conclude that it was because of his inexperience rather than his political philosophy.

Wait, I forgot about Jeb Bush. Wait, no I didn’t. I don’t think anyone—in either party—really wants to have yet another Bush as president. And the way he’s been campaigning, I’m not sure Jeb Bush really wants it either. I think dynasty fatigue could be a real thing, and that’s another possible problem for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Needless to say, all bets are off if Donald Trump or Ben Carson were to actually get nominated. Or if Trump or someone like Jim Webb mounted a third-party campaign. And, of course, if war were to break out in the Middle East or somewhere else or if the U.S. were to get hit by a serious terrorist attack, that would definitely scramble things. In other words, there is really no way to know what will happen a year from now.

The only sure thing is that, however it turns out, half the country will wind up more disenchanted and angry than ever.

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