Why We’re Already Talking About the 2016 Race

There’s not a lot happening in Washington, and what little is possible is already being done. No wonder people are looking ahead.

SIMI VALLEY, CA - MARCH 08: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Reagan Library after autographing his new book "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution" on March 8, 2013 in Simi Valley, California. Bush discussed the leadership and policy changes he believes are required to turn the country around.
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 30, 2014, 4 p.m.

It’s hard to re­mem­ber a pres­id­en­tial con­test re­ceiv­ing this much at­ten­tion so long be­fore the elec­tion cycle even began. We have the burbling ques­tion of wheth­er Hil­lary Clin­ton will run, not to men­tion a look at the former sec­ret­ary of State and her closest circle of ad­visers and sup­port­ers in a New York Times Magazine cov­er story; we’ve seen the drama around New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie and the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal dom­in­ate the news for a couple of weeks; spec­u­la­tion abounds about wheth­er Jeb Bush might make a bid; and Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Ru­bio have all at­trac­ted con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion over the past year. It’s an un­pre­ced­en­ted fo­cus on a race that has been go­ing on for a while already and won’t even really heat up for an­oth­er year.

Part of this comes from Re­pub­lic­ans. Badly dis­ap­poin­ted by 2012, when they blew a very win­nable pres­id­en­tial race and lost — rather than gained — three Sen­ate seats, com­ing up far short of a hoped-for Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans have already moved on. For Demo­crats, who are in­creas­ingly pess­im­ist­ic about win­ning a House ma­jor­ity this dec­ade and are alarmed about the status of their Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, which is tee­ter­ing on a knife’s edge, think­ing about 2016 is a wel­comed dis­trac­tion from cur­rent prob­lems.

It’s also true that as far as Demo­crats are con­cerned, dreams of the Obama pres­id­ency be­ing a second Cam­elot were dashed long ago. On Cap­it­ol Hill, few Demo­crats love, fear, or even re­spect their pres­id­ent. They no longer have any emo­tion­al bond or com­mit­ment to him, and they have be­gun to move on as well, think­ing about bet­ter days ahead.

When Obama hits a high note, such as dur­ing his trib­ute to Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Rems­burg and oth­er badly wounded war­ri­ors from Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, his elo­quence is un­matched, and his words in­spir­ing. The sub­stance of his speeches, though, is of­ten just thin gruel and wish­ful think­ing. Sure, Obama can rise to the ora­tor­ic­al prowess of Ron­ald Re­agan or Bill Clin­ton. But when it comes to de­liv­er­ing the goods, with any­thing short of 59 or 60 Sen­ate seats and the huge ma­jor­it­ies his party had in the House back in 2009 and 2010, this ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­livered very little, and that’s what leaves so many Demo­crats shak­ing their heads.

The in­im­it­able and in­dis­pens­able Mike Al­len wrote in his SOTU morn­ing-after Politico Play­book,“Things are start­ing to work. We have a budget, we have a farm bill, there won’t be a white-knuckle debt-lim­it stare-down. Both sides are at least flirt­ing with im­mig­ra­tion com­prom­ise. Both Obama and House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers gave up­beat speeches in hopes of keep­ing this mo­mentum go­ing. This is no grand bar­gain. But it’s no longer grand dys­func­tion.”

Al­len is ac­cur­ate on all of this, but if you look at the pro­gress on the sub­stant­ive mat­ters he men­tioned, Obama’s role is tan­gen­tial at best. I doubt that the White House can pro­duce a pic­ture of Obama, in his shirtsleeves, ac­tu­ally ham­mer­ing out a deal on the farm bill.

The truth is, Con­gress has de­veloped cop­ing mech­an­isms that al­low mem­bers to move mod­estly, with min­im­al, if any, pres­id­en­tial in­volve­ment. Sim­il­arly, the White House has signaled its in­ten­tion to do what it can through ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders and oth­er ac­tions that don’t re­quire con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al. In oth­er words, each end of Pennsylvania Av­en­ue has learned how to work around the oth­er, giv­en their in­ab­il­ity to work with one an­oth­er.

The end res­ult is that Wash­ing­ton has be­gun to kind of work, through moves that can be made with min­im­al cross-branch or cross-aisle en­gage­ment. If the act­ive in­volve­ment and close co­oper­a­tion of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell were needed for everything, the gov­ern­ment wouldn’t even be able to open its doors most days.

See­ing as how the present is so dis­cour­aging, it’s little won­der that, to the ex­tent pos­sible, many have moved on and star­ted think­ing about the fu­ture. All we need is Scar­lett O’Hara say­ing, “To­mor­row is an­oth­er day.” (Note to the young: That’s a Gone With the Wind ref­er­ence.)

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