What’s the American political landscape looking like?


President Obama has a beer at Wynkoop Brewing Co. with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in Denver. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The dog days of summer are upon us, and with them, an extended slowdown in politics — as Americans spend their time working on their tans rather than studying up on the latest fights in the nation’s capital. Things won’t pick up in earnest again until after Labor Day, when the political campaigning reemerges in full force.

As we head into this break, it’s worth pausing to review 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.

1. 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 summer 2011 amid recriminations about who was really to blame. Obama seems to have come to the realization that the two sides are not going to be friends a bit later than House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), but he has adopted a standoffish tone with the zeal of a convert. His “so sue me” taunt — and Boehner’s subsequent decision to do exactly that — marks a new low point in the relationship.

2. Nothing is getting done in Congress.

Little tends to happen legislatively in election years, and that is doubly true now as Republicans have premised their entire strategy on making the midterms a referendum on Obama’s lack of signature accomplishments. And the president, 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.

3. Obama is likely to be a drag on his party this fall.

Nothing is set in stone, but Obama’s job-approval numbers — and his numbers specifically on handling the economy — are in the low to mid-40s. What history tells us is that a president’s approval numbers are among a handful of factors that correlate rather closely to the fate of his party in a midterm election. Since 1944, presidents with approval ratings lower than 50 percent have seen their party lose an average of 36 House seats, according to data from 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 battleground states — 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.

4. Republicans are favored to retake the Senate.

It’s not a lock by any means. But combine the president’s less-than-stellar numbers, historical 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.

5. Hillary is running.

No, she hasn’t made a final “go” decision. But the rollout of her memoir “Hard Choices” — and the aggressive pushback from her team to negative stories about said rollout — makes her intentions about the 2016 election quite clear. Clinton will enter the Democratic primary as an overwhelming favorite, a far greater favorite than she was at this time in the 2008 election. But, as her troubles during the rollout of her book suggest, some problems that dogged her in 2008 are still around.

6. 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 have emerged by this time as the establishment front-runner for the 2016 nod. But then came Bridgegate, a political wound from which Christie is still healing. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush would be the Republican front-runner, but he seems entirely uninterested 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 (Tex.). But, in truth, no one — not even Paul or Cruz — has distinguished themselves from the pack.

7. The GOP’s demographic problems are getting worse.

Blame for the failure to pass any sort of immigration reform in this Congress will fall at the feet of Republicans. As the Republican National Committee’s own autopsy after the 2012 election warned, failure to pass immigration reform is deeply problematic for the party’s attempt to woo Latino voters and 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 remains vehemently opposed to any “amnesty” deal.

8. Being in party leadership ain’t what it used to be.

With the exception of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who looks as though he’s genuinely enjoying himself, being a member of your party’s leadership just isn’t much fun. Rep. Eric Cantor’s stunning loss last month is the prime example, but Boehner can’t be thrilled at being tasked with leading a group of Republican House members who can’t be led. And while Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) 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 and the rise of outside funding mechanisms badly limit the control that leaders can exert 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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