In the last month or so we’ve seen House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss, Hillary Clinton’s book tour from hell, the Middle East erupt once more, the Taliban prisoner trade debacle, the Veterans Administration scandal and the rollout of a coherent reform conservative agenda. Despite the media frenzy over these events, has the 2016 presidential terrain shifted any?
There is an argument that these events helped crystallize trends of several years but did not fundamental change the political landscape.
We knew anti-incumbent fever was high; Cantor’s loss simply demonstrated the degree to which being an insider is a burden and not a benefit.
We knew Clinton ran a poor campaign in 2008 and was going to have a tough time explaining her record as secretary of state; her serial flubs last week just confirmed how tone deaf she can be and the degree to which the media and public are willing to challenge her claims of competence.
As for the Obama calamities both foreign and domestic, we’ve known for some time his governance skills were poor and his third-rate advisers were liability; recent events merely widened the circle of people willing to say so.
And the reform conservative agenda coupled with the wins by reform-minded candidates such as Ben Sasse in Nebraska were hardly the first signs of a Republican policy revival. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have been driving the policy debate on the right for some time, while GOP governors have been reforming health care, education, tax and budget policy around the country.
In other words, whichever way the political winds had been blowing, they’ve recently increased in magnitude and claimed some high-profile victims. We return, however, to some political realities that were evident well before the Obama foreign policy capsized and Clinton’s illusion of inevitability was swept away:
1. On the GOP side, anyone from inside the Beltway is going to have a steep hill to climb to prove he or she hasn’t “gone native” (D.C. steakhouses may see a downturn in business).
2. The world is too dangerous and the hole Obama has dug for America too deep to turn the White House over to a candidate who hasn’t thought much about foreign policy and lacks experience in decision-making.
3. The public may be “war weary” and jaundiced about new military engagements, but they can see when events are spinning out of control and our own security is at stake. They expect someone resolute and knowledgeable whom they can imagine standing up to Russia and standing by Israel.
4. The way to unite the GOP is to stop labeling (“not a true conservative,” “establishment,” “tea party”) and to start offering solid policy initiatives that go to the heart of the failed liberal welfare state. That means K-12 reform and school choice, an Obamacare alternative, pro-growth economic policies, options for higher ed and rooting out crony capitalism (be they green energy boondoggles or sweetheart deals for banks).
5. Faux controversies and wedge issues past their expiration date (e.g. war on women, gay marriage) have limited utility. Americans can see sweeping social changes and for the most part are learning to accommodate themselves to more diverse workplaces and social arrangements. Voters have limited patience for pols who stoke divisions for personal gain.
6. Whatever the controversy of the day or week, every poll shows voters are most concerned about the economy and jobs. The candidate who has a concrete agenda based on day-to-day concerns of working- and middle-class voters is going to make more headway than generic appeals (balance the budget!) that don’t have a chance of getting done and don’t directly relate to voters’ economic concerns.
All of that tells me that if the Republicans choose a can-do governor with a clear vision of expanding opportunity and keeping the peace through strong U.S. world leadership, they can win back the White House. And as for Hillary Clinton, she better show herself to be more than a testy celebrity. Otherwise Democrats may start draft movements for Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold or New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And just in case, those and other ambitious Democrats should start brushing up on their foreign policy.