Hey, did you hear? It’s already over.
Yes, you know what I’m talking about. The presidential election is over …. no, not 2012, but 2016.
It’s already been decided.
If there’s one way to spot a die-hard political junkie, it’s to see how much spin they generate in the days following a presidential election. It’s almost like watching someone lose a dear member of their family, and being emotionally unable to admit that person is gone. Or maybe like losing a job you’ve had for years, and being able to accept that you won’t be going into the office again on Monday, like you did for decades.
For the true political junkie, living and breathing the excitement of a political campaign is like no other thrill on Earth. And it makes you unique, in a sense, since for most of us, presidential elections mean the tedium of being bombarded with non-stop political attack ads on television, getting all those awful political flyers in the mail, and receiving far too many political robocalls during dinner. For most of us, the end of the election is a day of joy and celebration, regardless of who won.
But for the political junkie, the end of the election is a moment of agony, because what that transitions into is the president and Congress going back to the ho-hum busy of legislating, which isn’t nearly as interesting to watch. So, to keep up the now artificial high you got from watching the down-and-dirty antics on the campaign trail, the spin masters look ahead to the next election cycle and eagerly begin speculating: will President Obama drag Democrats down during the midterm elections in 2014? Will there be any national trends working for or against either party by then?
Break out the crystal balls, people.
All of this is commonplace among the political die-hards, and the rest of us can happily ignore it. But what I find awfully surprising is the spinmasters on both sides who insist the presidential election of 2016 — yes, the race nearly four years away — is pretty much over.
Boy, are some folks addicted to campaigns.
You can smell a devoted partisan a mile away when they start making these predictions in the days following the 2012 presidential race, when the less partisan political analysts are busy trying to decifer the meaning behind the results of the election we just concluded. While these analysts debate whether President Obama created a new, lasting Democratic coalition, or whether GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost because of an uninspiring campaign more so than Obama won, it’s fascinating — and, at the same time, annoying and tedious — to see partisans announcing that they can, rather definitively, say what’s going to happen in 2016. The partisan hacks on both sides are getting in on the act, and you could define their arguments as, for Republicans, the “heavyweight” theory, and for Democrats, the “numbers” theory.
And while it would be easy to dismiss both sides and just say neither argument is worth a bucket of warm spit in February 2013, it might be fun to look at what they’re actually saying, and which side sounds closer to being even semi-convincing.
For Republicans, the argument is that Obama won in 2008 because the nation was suffering from Bush-fatigue — eights years under Republican George W. Bush — and in 2012 because Romney couldn’t get his act together, so neither result was an ideological victory. This still being a right-of-center nation, they argue of the country that just elected a very liberal Democrat by clear majorities, and the GOP can still win in 2016 — and almost certainly will, if they pick the right candidate.
Hence, the view that if the party, curiously enough, looks to the sunny shores of Florida, and nominates either our junior Republican senator, Marco Rubio, or former governor, Jeb Bush, then the election will be settled. Either candidate, they argue, can successfully appeal to both white voters and those Latinos who have been bailing out to the Democrats in recent years to generate a safe victory.
So bring on the heavyweights.
So, let’s take a look at this theory — warts and all.
I’ve never quite understood the Jeb Bush as GOP savior theory, especially when you consider that the first president George H.W. Bush badly lost his re-election bid in 1992 and the second President Bush left office with an approval rating in the high 20s. The idea that Americans crave a Bush dynasty the way they crave a food fast restaurant on every corner seems misguided at best, which may be why the Jeb Bush camp doesn’t seem to be courting media speculation in the same way the Rubio camp has been.
The sales pitch for Rubio is that he’s attractive, a good speaker, a Cuban-American who favors immigration reform, and a pragmatic conservative who can appeal beyond the party’s base. Perhaps. He’s also untested nationally, and while the space between now and November 2016 might give Rubio the opportunity to blossom into a truly first rate political leader, he could also crumble under the weight of heavy media scrutiny. Either way, it’s too early to suggest he can successfuly build a coalition the way Obama did — or that he can’t.
Democrats, meanwhile, like to think they have their own heavyweight in former First Lady, U.S. Senator and near-Obama-conquerer Hillary Clinton. They gleefully cite polls suggesting she has a high approval rating and could draw in the kind of blue-collar white voters who took a pass on Obama.
Maybe. But again, it’s not clear if voters want another round with Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton, interrupted only by a couple of Obama terms, or that Clinton will even run again when it’s clear that other ambitious Democrats — like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — are similarly eying the nomination as well.
But Democrats are not resting on the heavyweight theory. They think their nominee will win in 2016, regardless of who the candidates are, because they can point out that from 1992 until 2012, the United States held six presidential elections, and the Democrats won the popular vote in five out of six. In other words, the Democrats have a working majority among the voters.
And curiously, it’s a theory they actually stole — from the Republicans.
For years, Republicans liked to point out that between 1968 — the first election after Democrat Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory in 1964 — and 1988, the U.S. had six presidential elections, and Republicans won the popular vote in five of those six. The exception was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter very narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, in the same way that in 2004, George W. Bush narrowly edged John Kerry in the popular vote.
It was said that Republican Richard Nixon exploited divisions within the governing Democratic coalition over civil rights and the Vietnam War to win the presidency in 1968 and 1972, and then Ronald Reagan came along in 1980 to prove once and for all, in two landslide victories, that the Republicans’ conservative message was the new norm, not the New Deal or Great Society.
They were particularly convinced this was the case in 1988, when Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, carried 40 states and 53 percent of the vote against the Democrat, Michael Dukakis, who had led him by 17 points in the polls following the Democratic convention. Surely, the Republican prognosticators argued, this race demonstrated that the GOP was the new majority party.
And yet … just when the party seemed to feel most confident of continued success, it all ended in 1992, when President Bush got just 38 percent of the vote and Bill Clinton carried 32 states. Oops.
The GOP did its best to comfort itself. Clinton did not really win, they argued, it was just that Bush lost by running an uninspiring campaign, failing to jump start a weak economy, angering the base by raising taxes, and of course losing crucial votes to third-party candidate Ross Perot. America was still a GOP-leaning nation, they argued, that would reject Clinton once they got a taste of his big government ways — a theory that seemed to have been proven in 1994 when Republicans won landslide victories in the midterm elections and reclaimed control of Congress for the first time since the 1950s.
If the party could only nominate a swifty like, say, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the spin boys claimed, Clinton would be toast in 1996.
But it didn’t happen. Clinton easily got re-elected, and his vice president, Al Gore, won the popular vote in 2000 while narrowly losing in the electoral college count to George W. Bush. Now it’s the Dmeocrats’ turn to insist they have the numbers to back up their argument that their coalition has legs.
I find the Republicans to be making an awfully mediocre case these days for the U.S. being a right-of-center nation, after 51 percent of the people in 26 states voted for the liberal architect of the stimulus bill and ObamaCare. Surely a majority of those voters were saying they want bigger, not smaller, government, and not simply that Romney’s campaign was poorly run and they would have voted for him otherwise.
But then again, it was just when the Republicans began bragging after the 1988 election that they had a lock on the electoral college that Bill Clinton came along and it all collapsed on them. Was it overconfidence that cost the GOP the majority that carried the party through five of six elections from 1968 to 1988? Are we now in the midst of a similar Democratic cycle, and could overconfidence on the part of Democrats tank them in 2016?
It could also be that neither side had a working majority all along, and the run of one-party victories was due more to a wide combination of factors — candidates, media ads, social or economic climate at the time, shifting ideologies — that simply can’t be replicated in 2016.
I do know it’s far too early to believe the GOP has a heavyweight savior waiting in the wings, or that Democrats have a clear winning coalition in place for 2016.
I prefer just to say that in politics, it’s a safer bet to expect the unpredictable.
And at this point in time, please folks, leave the spin in the sock drawer … at least this far away from when the next presidential election day rolls around.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.