The One Thing Each Party Needs to Overcome by 2016

So far, neither side has made much progress toward solving its lingering challenge.

National Journal
May 22, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

Each party emerged from the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion fa­cing one key elect­or­al chal­lenge be­fore the next con­test in 2016. More than 18 months later, neither side has made much pro­gress to­ward over­com­ing it. That fail­ure frames the cent­ral test for each party’s likely 2016 con­tenders as they ap­proach the race’s start­ing line.

For Demo­crats, the crit­ic­al task after Pres­id­ent Obama’s reelec­tion was re­build­ing faith in act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly among the white middle-class. But the evid­ence sug­gests that Demo­crats in­stead have con­tin­ued to lose ground on that front.

The col­lapse of faith in the private sec­tor that fol­lowed the fin­an­cial crash offered Obama an open­ing: On the day he was elec­ted in 2008, 51 per­cent of voters said in exit polls that they be­lieved gov­ern­ment should be do­ing more to solve prob­lems, while only 43 per­cent said it was do­ing too much.

But that found­a­tion proved rick­ety once Obama took of­fice. Most eco­nom­ists be­lieve his stim­u­lus plan pre­ven­ted a deep­er down­turn, but polls showed that most Amer­ic­ans, still buf­feted by high un­em­ploy­ment and plunging home val­ues, be­lieved it be­nefited the wealthy and big cor­por­a­tions rather than av­er­age fam­il­ies. In mir­ror im­age, polls found that most Amer­ic­ans (es­pe­cially whites) con­cluded his health care bill would help the poor and un­in­sured rather than their own fam­il­ies. By the 2012 elec­tion, the num­bers on gov­ern­ment’s role had re­versed: Just 43 per­cent of voters said that gov­ern­ment should be do­ing more while 51 per­cent (in­clud­ing 59 per­cent of whites) said it was do­ing too much.

Since then, the stub­bornly slow eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery has hardened skep­ti­cism. In April’s All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll, just one-fourth of adults said Obama’s agenda is in­creas­ing eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity for people like them. And while the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­covered from the health care law’s dis­astrous launch to ex­ceed its en­roll­ment goals, in polls more people still say the law will hurt rather than help either their own fam­ily or the coun­try over­all. On both fronts, the num­bers are es­pe­cially bleak among whites.

Add to this list the widen­ing scan­dal at Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and the prom­ise of a pitched re­gion­al battle over up­com­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from power plants, and the next Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee will face a stark test.

Wheth­er the Demo­crats pick Hil­lary Clin­ton or someone else, the party’s 2016 agenda will in­ev­it­ably re­volve around new gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives to spur the eco­nomy and ex­pand op­por­tun­ity. If most Amer­ic­ans con­clude that a sim­il­ar ap­proach un­der Obama has not be­nefited their fam­ily, the nom­in­ee will face a for­mid­able bur­den of proof. GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres says that not only Re­pub­lic­ans but also most in­de­pend­ents have con­cluded that Obama’s agenda “cer­tainly hasn’t worked for me.” That means, he con­tin­ues, if Clin­ton is the nom­in­ee, “she has a sub­stan­tial chal­lenge to per­suade voters that Demo­crats have something new to of­fer.”

Clin­ton’s speech last week to the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion offered the first hints of how she might try to meet that test. In es­sence she offered something old and something new. The old was to link the be­ne­fits of act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment not to the Obama years, but to the two terms of her hus­band Bill Clin­ton — when the eco­nomy pro­duced over 22 mil­lion new jobs and broadly shared in­come gains. The new was her fo­cus on in­equal­ity, which al­lowed her to ad­opt the pop­u­list tone much more com­mon in the party today than dur­ing her hus­band’s time. “The big ques­tion in 2016 is as likely to re­volve around who gov­ern­ment works for as it is around how big gov­ern­ment is and what it does,” says Geoff Gar­in, a top Clin­ton ad­viser in 2008.

That re­mains to be seen. But even if Demo­crats can’t win the ar­gu­ment about gov­ern­ment’s role, that doesn’t mean they are doomed to de­feat in 2016. That’s be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans re­main stumped by their prin­cip­al chal­lenge after 2012: ad­apt­ing to a chan­ging elect­or­ate, par­tic­u­larly the grow­ing minor­ity pop­u­la­tion (which could reach 30 per­cent of voters next time). Apart from nas­cent ef­forts from Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Paul Ry­an to tackle en­trenched urb­an poverty, the GOP has done little to court minor­ity voters who have con­sist­ently pre­ferred Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates by a ra­tio of about 4-to-1 since the 1970s. In par­tic­u­lar, the in­su­lar re­fus­al of House Re­pub­lic­ans to con­sider im­mig­ra­tion re­form means “the GOP is on the verge of ce­ment­ing its brand as the anti-im­mig­rant party,” as re­form ad­voc­ate Frank Sharry ar­gued this week.

Each side may be bet­ting mostly on bio­graphy to solve its linger­ing chal­lenge. Clin­ton’s fam­ily ped­i­gree — which reaches back to her hus­band’s bal­anced budgets and wel­fare re­form-might re­as­sure cen­ter-right whites who con­sider Obama too de­voted to big gov­ern­ment. Re­pub­lic­ans might make gains with His­pan­ics by pla­cing Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio or New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez on their tick­et. But per­son­al­ity will only bend, not break, these dy­nam­ics. Without an agenda that dir­ectly con­fronts their bookended weak­nesses with whites and minor­it­ies, neither Demo­crats nor Re­pub­lic­ans are likely to es­cape the pre­cari­ous di­vi­sion of power that has po­lar­ized and para­lyzed Wash­ing­ton.

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