Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Horse Races in ’14 and ‘16

As a sports fan, I should be getting pumped for the next great sporting event on the horizon: the 2014 Midterms.   Here’s the problem, though -- the Midterms are all about Congressional races, and Congress is no longer of interest to anyone either inside-the-Beltway or outside-the-Beltway.   In fact, it’s only of interest to folks ON the Beltway -- because, like the Washington Beltway at rush hour, it is a thoroughly gridlocked institution.   

Why should we care about which Party wins control of the House of Representatives or the Senate?  Will either Party obtain enough of a majority that it can actually pass meaningful legislation?   Politically, this country is so evenly divided at this point that we can expect the status quo to continue on the Hill for some time.   Yes, the majority Party may get the perks of bigger staffs, bigger offices, and more control over what Congress does in its investigatory capacity.  But I seem to remember from elementary school that Congress’s primary role in our society was to pass laws, and when it comes to that function, I seriously can’t tell how it matters very much who “wins” this upcoming horse race.

But there is another horse race coming even further on the horizon: the Presidential campaign of 2016.  And that one does seem to matter quite a bit.   The President controls a wide range of federal agencies.   Even leaving aside all of the domestic areas under the President’s command, s/he becomes Commander in Chief of America’s military and controls its foreign policy.   Plus, the President appoints our nation’s federal judges and Supreme Court justices.  So despite all the gridlock in Washington, the Presidency is still a very, very big job.

At this point, when I focus on the candidates for 2016, three faces come immediately to mind, and   everyone else is an afterthought.  On the Democratic side, there is only one contender.  I don’t even have to mention her name; that’s how over this race appears to be.   Truth be told, however, Hillary is not a young woman and there are all sorts of things that could happen to a person of her age that might prevent her from running.  But I’m convinced that if she is healthy, which I pray she will be, she will run.  And if she does run, the odds of her losing the nomination are about as high as the odds of my Minnesota Vikings winning their first Super Bowl next year.   Well, OK, she’s not that much of a shoe-in, but close.  She has the name, the experience, and the support among the grass roots, the big-money contributors and the Party leaders.   The only person whose popularity in the Party is even close to hers is the guy who shares her last name.   

Truly, even talking about the Democratic race in 2016 is a waste of ink.   So let’s get to the Elephants, because that race is definitely up for grabs.

I expect a much tougher road to the nomination in ’16 than the one Mitt had to travel in ’12.  He was a poor candidate who won by default because he was taking on the Seven Dwarfs.   Personally, I thought that John Huntsman, Jr. could have been formidable in a general election, but he was running as a moderate at a time when the Republican faithful were looking for a right-wing extremist.   They tossed him aside immediately and tried their hardest to do the same to Mitt, but Romney turned out to be the only semi-credible candidate, so they had no choice but to give him the nod.  The result was predictable; supposedly, even Mitt was saying privately that he wasn’t a very compelling candidate for the times.  You think?

In light of the quality of the last two GOP tickets, Democrats are surely giddy about their chances in 2016.  I would agree that their grand-dame nominee should be made the heavy favorite.   But the outcome is far from ordained.  And that is because the GOP should be able to provide a much more able challenger next time around.

Who will it be?  The possibilities are legion.  The talk-radio lovers like Ted Cruz.  The televangelist lovers like Mike Huckabee.  The schoolyard bully lovers like Chris Christy.  But I want to focus on two other contenders, neither of whom should be underestimated as political forces.

Let me begin by saying that if there can be one more Clinton, why not one more Bush?  Sure, there is plenty of W fatigue, but Jeb is not anywhere close to the same person as his elder brother.   Jeb was always supposed to be the “smart one,” remember?  Like W, he was a successful governor of a very large state, and a relatively moderate voice at that.  But unlike W, Jeb is supposed to have a good mind for grappling with public policy issues.  Nobody is going to lampoon him as the reincarnation of Alfred E. Neuman.   He’s likely to remind people more of his father than his brother, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t hear a lot of bad things said these days about H.W.   Pappy Bush ran a pretty non-ideological Administration, and Jeb would be likely to do the same.  It is hard to see him as likely to turn over the power behind the throne to a figure like Dick Cheney.  In fact, Jeb’s election might even be the spark capable of bringing the Republican Party back into the mainstream.  It wasn’t that long ago that the Republicans were the Party of Dwight Eisenhower, Earl Warren and David Souter.  

In short, Jeb could well be the kind of mainstream, traditionally-conservative, adult voice who the Democrats would find difficult to either demonize or ridicule.  No, he is not the most exciting candidate in the world.  Then again, neither is Hillary.  That’s why Obama was able to take her down in ’08 despite her being the prohibitive favorite at the outset of the campaign.   If she ran against Jeb, she would be faced with the unenviable task of defending the status quo, and Jeb would have the advantage of speaking as the reformer with the freedom to take pot shots at the current Administration and to formulate any alternative ideological vision that suits his fancy.   I still think Hillary would have the edge in the horse race because of the Clinton name and the prospect that she would be our first woman President. But if Jeb’s people could seize on the right campaign themes, he could put up a serious fight.  

The second Republican name that should scare Hillary’s backers is Rand Paul.  Yes, that guy, the loopy libertarian.  Before you laugh at me, consider that Paul realizes that no loopy libertarian has a chance to win the White House, so he is in the process of reinventing himself.  He is doing precisely what anyone who wants to be President must do if he finds himself near the extreme of the American political spectrum: he’s taking a play right out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook.   He is figuring out how to talk with the rhetoric of a plain-spoken visionary who puts principles over pragmatism, all-the-while pivoting toward a place where he will broaden his appeal.  In other words, he is showing some real savvy.

There was a point when I assumed that Rand Paul was unelectable.   I expected that he would adopt his father’s isolationism, which clearly would offend the powerful pro-Israeli lobby, among others.  But the Rand Paul I see now is ready to do whatever it takes to kiss the right rings.  In that regard, he has two objectives:  to ensure that he doesn’t alienate key parts of the GOP base (like the pro-Israel lobby), and to appeal to Reagan Democrats and Independents.  I’m not sure he has figured out how to do the latter yet, but I don’t doubt for a second that he’s working on it.  

Paul has one huge advantage over Jeb: he doesn’t have to worry that by taking moderate positions on issues, he’ll be accused of being a RINO (Republican-in-name-only).   Make no mistake that the Tea Party wing of the GOP knows that Rand Paul is one of them.   No less than Reagan or his own father, Rand Paul understands that his bread and butter as a politician is to show passion for reducing the size of the government.    And if there’s one thing that the Tea Partiers love, it’s politicians who hate big government.   

The beauty of Rand Paul as a politician is that even though his is one of the most anti-government platforms of any American politician, he understands that he can’t come across as a hater.  Stylistically, he is a happy warrior, and he is learning how to come across as above the fray – by, for example, speaking respectfully about his political opponents.    I can easily see him out-flanking Hillary with the superficially positive tone of his campaign, all the while delivering a searing critique of the Obama Administration’s “big government” approach to leadership.   At a time when two thirds of Americans seem to think that our country is heading in the wrong direction, both this type of messenger and this type of message could present a formidable challenge to Hillary – unless she can identify some pretty compelling campaign themes.

So there you have it – three faces to consider when you think about 2016.  The upshot is that if Hillary wants to win the next election, she must do more than just show up like Barack Obama did and allow Bill Clinton to sell his candidacy while his opponent’s candidacy fell under its own weight.  Hillary has never been as lucky a politician as Obama, and in 2016, she’ll have to make her own luck; the job won’t simply be handed over to her.

Before that contest begins, however, I suppose it is our obligation as sports fans to look forward to the Midterms.   Maybe it doesn’t really matter which Party has the faster cars (i.e. wins control of Congress) because no vehicle can move very fast on the Beltway at rush hour.   But at least it might be interesting to see which Party gets the use of more vehicles or nicer wheels.   Then, in 2016, maybe we can see if we can elect a President who will inspire us to stop the gridlock.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping to live long enough to actually see Congress do its job again.  If we can put men on the Moon, why can’t we put true representatives in Congress?

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