President Obama is in a political free fall. Democrats up for reelection in 2014 are furiously trying to get out from under the Affordable Care Act’s problems. Independent handicappers are predicting doom and gloom at the ballot box for the party next November.
In short, everything is coming up Republicans lately. But the GOP would be making a big mistake if it assumed that the problems with Obamacare were a panacea for all that ails the party. They aren’t.
“We are fortunate that, through the failures of the Obama administration, the GOP is in a better spot,” said Terry Nelson, a leading Republican strategist. “But we still have to answer the question that voters are asking, which is: What would we do? That’s our opportunity, and we have to seize it.”
The health-care law’s problems — and what they are doing and probably will continue to do to damage the president and his party — could make the 2014 midterms a very good election for Republicans. It’s not by accident that of the 39 Democrats who voted with the Republican House majority Friday to allow people who like their insurance to keep it, virtually all are vulnerable heading into 2014. And the fact that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is up for reelection in a state where Obama won just 41 percent of the vote in 2012, is leading an effort in the Senate to do virtually the same thing tells you everything you need to know about the near-term politics of the issue for Democrats.
But the 2016 presidential election is another animal entirely — one far less likely to be fundamentally influenced by the problems with the health-care law.
Recent history is instructive here. Remember that after Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008, there was talk that the Republican Party needed to look inward and reevaluate itself to grapple with the changing demographic and geographic realities that were moving against the party nationally. Then Obama introduced the Affordable Care Act. The ensuing fight — within Congress and across the country — unified Republicans in opposition to Obama and his agenda. It also led to massive gains for Republicans in the 2010 midterms, with the GOP picking up 63 seats and retaking control of the House.
Those wins convinced many Republicans that Obama’s victory in 2008 was an exception, not the new normal of national politics. And boy, were they wrong. The 2012 election exposed — to an even greater degree than 2008 had — the GOP’s problems when it came to winning a presidential race. Obama swamped Mitt Romney among Hispanics who viewed Republicans as aggressively opposed to their concerns (remember Romney’s “self-deportation” solution to the problem of illegal immigration?), won among women who blanched at the GOP’s social-issues agenda and crushed Romney among young voters.
“Republicans need to understand that their political problems are neither tactical nor transitory,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “They are structural and demographic. The hard truth is the GOP coalition constitutes a shrinking portion of the electorate. To change that daunting reality, Republicans must appeal to groups that are currently outside their ranks or risk becoming a permanent minority.”
Opposing a president’s agenda might be enough to win a midterm election in which (largely base) voters are in the mood to send a message to the man in the White House. But simply saying “I am not that guy” is not even close to enough to win a presidential election. And that goes double for 2016, when Obama won’t be on the ballot and when the Republican brand could be in the gutter nationally. Need evidence of that brand problem? The same Quinnipiac University poll, released last week, that showed Obama reaching his low ebb in terms of job approval also showed a whopping 73 percent of registered voters expressing disapproval of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs.
Opposition to what Obama has done is not a path to winning over Hispanics, women or young voters. To win in 2016, the Republican nominee will need to outline a set of policy prescriptions — education seems like a ripe area — that both changes the “old white guy” perception that looms over the party and appeals to some of the demographic groups that have moved away from the GOP in recent years.
So yes, Republicans are having a very good month. They may have a very good next year. And a very good 2014 election. But that doesn’t mean that what ailed the GOP in 2012 (and 2008) has magically fixed itself. It hasn’t.