Since the 2012 presidential election, most of the punditry concerning the national parties has focused on the GOP, and understandably so. Republicans have lost two presidential elections. There are sharp divides evident between isolationists and internationalists, between those who view politics as all-or-nothing and those who see politics as a process of negotiated progress. There are reformers and reactionaries, and a stark generational gap on issues like gay marriage.
But then, the Republicans are all too aware of these conflicts. They talk, debate, fight, recommend, reject and probe these fault lines endlessly, perhaps too obsessively. After all, a party’s outlook is largely shaped by either an elected president if it has the White House or its presidential nominee; the GOP has neither so the contest of ideas rages on in a somewhat abstract fashion.
Meanwhile, Democrats float on a bubble of electoral success. They have the White House and the Senate. The GOP’s “brand” is rotten. Hillary Clinton waits in the wings for 2016.
Nevertheless, Democrats have their own problems and less reason to address them. Most fundamentally, liberalism is at war with itself as reflected in President Obama’s second term. The left wants a huge welfare state, but the public bristles at its greatest achievement (Obamacare). The weight of that enlarged government stifles the private sector on which the economy (and that welfare state) must rely. The left finds U.S. action in the world distasteful if not downright wrong, but in the absence of U.S. leadership events spin out of control and atrocities multiply. Democrats still rely on class, gender and racial grievances to stoke their base, but the country is less racist and women are the primary breadwinners in more families than ever before.
If there was ever a more dreary picture than the president’s Friday remarks lecturing white Americans about why they are mistrusted by African Americans, I’d be hard-pressed to recall it. No hope, no change. The notion that Obama and his party might improve the lot of all Americans seems like a distant dream.
If Democrats’ policies don’t work, they have at least taken refuge in their political prowess, both in electoral mechanics and in their ability to stitch together constituent groups to form an electoral majority.
That said, Democrats may be at the end of run made possible largely by a once-in-a-generation economic meltdown. President Obama won’t be on the ballot and the notion that his successor would run for a “third Obama term” seems unappealing in light of the foreign policy debacles, scandals and economic doldrums that characterize the current presidency. The idea of Hillary Clinton is always better than the reality. Her record in office is problematic and her presidential political skills are underwhelming. Just as the GOP faced a crisis when it lost the White House (What do we want to be?), the Democrats may face the same dilemma if 2016 turns out to be a GOP year.
In 2008 Democrats capitalized on the historic opportunity to elect an African American and an obvious generational divide between a senior senator and a telegenic newcomer. That may suggest to Republicans a role reversal in 2016: Run their own telegenic newcomer against the Clintons’ dynastic ambitions. Even more daunting for Democrats would be a Republican who embraces and identifies with the woes of stressed families (in whatever form they take) who see retirement insecurity, rising health-care and educational costs, and an income squeeze.
In short, the Democrats have no more of a lock on the electorate than Republicans did when they faced the second midterm election of an incumbent president. They have failed to address the major challenges facing Americans, ranging from economic opportunity to health care to global security. The Obama agenda has stalled. He keeps his base engaged by conjuring up a series of threats to their well-being and by flogging issues that touch the lives of most Americans only tangentially (e.g. gun control, global warming).
Counting on continued Republican ineptness and extremism is a poor strategy. Sooner or later Republicans will find a contemporary candidate who relates to average Americans. At that point Americans may realize that they’ve gotten precious little from the transformational president.