Far too often, political coverage is based on the thinking of consultants and donors, and doesn't pay enough attention to what the voters are actually thinking. It's why we focus on presidential horse-race numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, which couldn't be less predictive, and are often slow to pick up on the issues driving grassroots anger, like Common Core. It's why immigration reform rates as a top legislative priority in the minds of strategists over proposing an economic agenda to assuage voter anxieties.
And it's why pundits and donors alike are vastly overrating the prospects of two brand-name candidates for 2016—Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—and undervaluing the reality that the current political environment is as toxic as it's ever been for lifelong politicians. At the most fundamental level, the next presidential election is shaping up to be a battle of which party can best conquer its demons—whether Republicans can improve their beaten brand, and whether Clinton (or any other Democrat) can present herself as the candidate of change, given the high level of voter dissatisfaction.
A new Pew Research Center survey, released Monday, underscored the malaise suffusing the American public, and the difficulty Clinton would face overcoming these realities as the nominee. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said they would like the next president to "offer different policies and programs" than the Obama administration—a rate close to the 70 percent dissatisfaction level against George W. Bush at a comparable time. Even with relatively stronger numbers—only 50 percent wanted new policies in 1999—Al Gore was unable to capitalize, in part because of the public's inherent desire for change. Since World War II, there's been only one stretch where one party has won three straight elections (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1980-1992).
Clinton's challenge will be to maintain her above-water favorability ratings, despite being closely tied to an unpopular administration. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes, she needs to win over the one-eighth of voters who disapprove of President Obama but view her favorably. According to last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll, these pro-Hillary, anti-Obama voters are predominantly white (71 percent), blue-collar (47 percent whites without college degrees), and female (63 percent). They're even less likely to vote in this year's midterms than the voters making up the president's core coalition. Many of these voters have become disillusioned under the Obama administration and have been trending away from the Democratic Party. The good news for Clinton is that they're receptive to her candidacy. The bad news is that once she announces as a candidate, there's a risk that her appeal fades away with these groups as Republican attacks begin—and she's unable to match the excitement Obama generated with minorities and young voters.
At the most fundamental level, the next presidential election is shaping up to be a battle of which party can best conquer its demons.
Republicans also enter the next presidential election with problems and opportunities. On the positive side, their unfavorable numbers aren't predestined to persist, and choosing a compelling nominee would go a long way toward improving the party's image. The bad news is that the Grand Old Party has shown it rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Their field is filled with up-and-coming prospects, from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but the party donors are fixated on flawed bigger-name candidates like Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who all sport glaring flaws. If the 2012 Republican primary taught any lessons, it should prove that donors aren't exactly the best judge of political talent.
As accomplished as Jeb Bush is, the notion that he'd be the party's strongest contender against Clinton is fanciful—and that's if he could even manage to get out of a primary. He hasn't won an election since 2002, he's proven slow to adapt to the new media landscape and navigating the waters between establishment leadership and the tea-party grassroots. Most importantly, his last name carries significant baggage. Given the pervasive anti-insider environment, would voters elect a third member of the same family? As the nominee, he'd protect Clinton from her biggest vulnerabilities.
As I wrote last month, Bush's protégé Rubio is the candidate to watch closely given his natural political talent and ability to rack up conservative chits while also remaining in the establishment's good graces. Next Tuesday, the Florida senator is giving a speech on retirement security at the National Press Club—a smart course correction from his ill-advised focus on immigration throughout much of 2013. He's emerging as a leading GOP foreign policy voice critical of the Obama administration, an essential asset for 2016—especially if Clinton is the nominee and runs on her record as secretary of State. In this hyper-scrutinizing media and political environment, Rubio has the potential celebrity star power to match Clinton and generate Republican excitement.
But given the tea party's demand for ideological purity and the donors' preference for a known commodity, the prospect of the most electable Republican getting through the primary process—or escaping untainted—is far from guaranteed. And the prospect of a GOP Senate takeover could easily tempt a newly empowered majority to embarrass Obama with investigations and politically motivated legislation. That wouldn't be helpful to the Republican presidential nominee, especially if it's a senator like Rubio or Sen. Rand Paul. (Rubio already has hinted at the possibility of not running for reelection to the Senate, a nod to the baggage of being tied to Congress.)
Surveying the coverage of the outsize personalities dominating political headlines, it's easy to forget just how turbulent our politics have been over the last decade. After inheriting a recession, Obama has failed to turn the economy around, instead spending most of his political capital reinventing the country's health care system. Our foreign policy has veered from hawkish to dovish, with America's standing in the world suffering in both instances. With a liberal president and deeply conservative House, compromise has been in short supply.
Voters are expressing a seemingly permanent bitterness at Washington and our country's governing class. This year's midterms are likely to be the fourth of five wave elections since 2006. If 2016 is another change election, being the candidate of the past will be a burden that won't be easily overcome.
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This article appears in the May 7, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.