8 things I’ve learned about the political world so far this year

The 4th of July is upon us and, with it, an extended slow-down in politics -- as Americans spend their time working on their tans rather than studying up on the latest fights happening in the nation's capitol. Things won't pick up in earnest again until after Labor Day when the campaign re-emerges in full force.


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As we head into this break, it's worth stopping for a minute to look around and figure out exactly what we've learned about the American political landscape -- as it relates to the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections, the hopes (or lack thereof) for legislative accomplishments and the fate of President Obama's second term.

Here are eight things I've learned.

* President Obama and Republicans in Congress are done dealing with each other. In truth, the relationship between the executive and legislative branches has been badly frayed since grand bargain talks broke off in the summer of 2011 amid recriminations of who was really to blame. Speaker John Boehner became convinced of two things during that ordeal: 1) he didn't trust Obama as an honest negotiator and 2) working with the president was bad for his own politics within the House Republican Conference. Obama seems to have come to the realization that the two sides are not going to be friends a bit later but he's now adopted a standoffish tone with the zeal of the converted. His "so sue me" taunt -- coming a week after Boehner announced plans to do just that over alleged abuses of executive authority -- marks a new low point in the relationship. And with a midterm election on the horizon, it's going to get worse, not better.

* Nothing, repeat, nothing is getting done in Congress.  Very little legislatively tends to happen in election years. That goes double when Republicans have premised the entirety of their strategy on making the midterms a referendum on President Obama's lack of signature accomplishments. And, Obama, because of his relatively dismal poll numbers, is in no position to enforce his will on an obstinate Congress or rally the American people behind his agenda. The two sides are, essentially, locked in the late rounds of a prizefight; neither is strong enough to knock the other down so they just sort of lean on each other and occasionally try to land a punch or two.  For lovers of major legislation, you can pretty much dial out of the political process until early 2017. See you then.

* President Obama is likely to be a drag on his party this fall. Nothing is set in stone but Obama's job approval numbers -- and, specifically, his approval numbers on handling the economy -- are in the low to mid 40s.  What history tells us is that presidential job approval numbers are one of a handful of factors that correlate rather closely to the fate of his party in a midterm election. Since 1944, presidents with job approval ratings under 50 percent have seen their party lose an average of 36 House seats, according to data provided by Gallup.  Obama's low numbers nationally are even more of a problem when it comes to Democratic efforts to retain control of the Senate; many of the key battlegrounds -- Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina -- are even less inclined to approve of how he is handling his job than the nation as a whole. At this point, the best case scenario for Democrats this November -- barring some sort of seismic unforeseen event -- is that the economy is seen as improving and, with it, President Obama's numbers move up to the mid or even upper 40s.

* Republicans are favored to retake the Senate. It's not a lock, by any means. But, combine the president's less-than-stellar numbers, historic trends about party gains (and losses) in midterms and the places in which the majority will be decided and it's clear that you'd rather be Senate Republicans than Senate Democrats at the moment.  Three of the six seats the GOP needs to retake the majority -- South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia -- are all but locked up.  They then need to win three of the following Democratic-held seats: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. (Republicans also can't lose their own endangered seats in Georgia and Kentucky.)  Not a sure thing but absolutely doable.

* Hillary is running.  No, she hasn't made a final "go" decision. But, the rollout of "Hard Choices" -- and the aggressive pushback her team took to negative stories about said rollout -- makes quite clear what her intentions about the 2016 election are.  Clinton will enter the Democratic primary as an overwhelming favorite, a far greater favorite than she was at this same time in the 2008 election. But, as her troubles during the rollout of her new memoir suggest, some of the problems that dogged her 2008 campaign are still around: She wanders off message and her team has a defensiveness bordering on paranoia.

* The Republican field is a jumble: There's little question that a year ago, most Republican operatives believed that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would by this time have emerged as the establishment frontrunner for the 2016 nod. But then Bridgegate happened -- a political wound from which Christie is still healing.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be the race's frontrunner but he seems entirely uninterested at the moment in making his mind up. That leaves a vacuum at the top, one being filled at the moment by the likes of Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).  But, in truth, no one -- not even Paul or Cruz -- has distinguished themselves from the pack just yet, leaving a mass of candidate clumped together even as Clinton looks like the near-certain Democratic nominee.

* The GOP's demographic problems are getting worse.  Blame for the failure to pass any sort of immigration reform in this Congress will fall directly at the feet of Republicans, who really don't need more negative storylines when it comes to the party's relationship with Hispanic voters.  As the Republican National Committee's own autopsy warned after the 2012 election, failure to pass immigration reform is deeply problematic for the party's attempt to woo Latino voters and to win a majority in national elections. Top party leaders know how much trouble they are in on the issue but the rank and file within the party remain vehemently opposed to so-called "amnesty".

* Being in party leadership ain't what it used to be. With the exception of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who looks as though he's genuinely enjoying himself, being a member of your party's leadership just ain't what it used to be.  Eric Cantor's stunning loss last month is the prime example but Speaker John Boehner can't be thrilled with being tasked with leading a group of Republican House Members who can't be led. And while Nancy Pelosi remains upbeat about her party's chances of winning back the majority this fall, she's about the only one.  The elimination of earmarks in the House coupled with the rise of outside funding mechanisms badly limits the control leaders have over backbenchers.  LINOs -- leaders in name only -- will start to be the rule not the exception.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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