Year in Review

Six Events From 2013 That Will Affect the 2016 White House Race

Will it be Hillary vs. Cruz? It’s not too early to consider how today’s stories could become tomorrow’s political realities.

12.18.13 10:45 AM ET

The first presidential primary is still more than two years away and the midterms will almost certainly reshuffle the White House deck of cards, but it’s not too early to consider six events in 2013 could resonate in 2016.

1. Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Testimony

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson incurred a heap of criticism for his dogged questioning of Hillary Clinton in January about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.  But amid the heated, unscripted exchange, he may have elicited one of the most potent attack lines Republicans will deploy against her if she runs for president. 

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”

“What difference at this point does it make?” will be stitched into ads and replayed thousands of times by Republicans and their conservative allies in an effort to vilify Clinton as incompetent and indifferent to the death of four Americans.  In her largely risk-free, uncontroversial tenure at Foggy Bottom, Benghazi stands out as flashpoint.  It remains an obsession of right-wing media and animates the GOP base.  One top Republican strategist calls it “a tire fire that just doesn’t go out.”  And for Clinton’s opponents, her testimony only poured gas on the blaze.

2. The Rise of Ted Cruz

A year ago, Ted Cruz was a little-known senator whose aides bristled at questions about his national ambitions. After leading the government shutdown and traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Cruz's designs couldn't be clearer. While Marco Rubio may have begun the year as the anointed  “savior of the Republican Party,” Cruz is ending it as the chief ringleader of movement conservatives.  While few strategists envision Cruz as the ultimate GOP nominee, his unapologetic, ideological fervor would reshape the field and the primary fight.  “Cruz running would inevitably drag the other GOP primary candidates to the right, potentially further than Romney got dragged” said Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, who served as press secretary for Obama’s 2012 campaign.  “No doubt he’d create a long list of ideological purity tests that would make it more difficult for the nominee to win the general.”  Even if Cruz doesn’t run, he’s asserted himself as a prime player whose blessing will be sought after.

3. Terry McAuliffe’s election as Virginia governor

Before this year, Terry McAuliffe was known primarily by Washington insiders as a master moneyman, strategist and mouthpiece for the Democratic Party.  As a result of November’s election, he’ll be soon be introduced to the nation as governor of Virginia—the chief executive of one of the most important battleground states in presidential politics.  Strategists on both sides of the aisle have long believed that securing governor’s mansions in swing states is one of the most critical factors in determining how a state votes for the White House.  Given McAuliffe’s close ties with the Clintons, Republicans now fret their chances at capturing the state in 2016 have taken a demonstrable hit.   “Bottom line is that the Democrats, particularly Hillary, have established a foothold in a critical state for 2016,” said Brett O’Donnell, who has worked on several GOP presidential campaigns.  “If anyone believes that Terry McAuliffe was primarily interested in being governor of Virginia for any other person, they are naive.  It’s a massive change in the balance of power in the state.  McAuliffe will do everything in his power to guarantee the state for Hillary.”

4. The Secret Letter Supporting Hillary

A huge, private show of support for a Hillary Clinton 2016 candidacy became public when North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan unintentionally let the cat out of the bag at an EMILY’s List event in October.  All sixteen female Democratic senators have signed a letter urging Clinton to run.  But the most notable on the list is Elizabeth Warren, the liberal heroine who poses the greatest threat to a Clinton coronation.  Public promises to not run for president have been broken before, but Warren’s name on a letter trumpeting Clinton makes her position much tougher to reverse.  One Democratic strategist called the letter the biggest sign yet that Clinton could have the easiest walk to a presidential nomination for a non-incumbent in decades. 

5.  Rubio’s Immigration Play

No potential candidate’s star has dimmed more dramatically over the last twelve months than that of Rubio, who took a bold political risk in championing comprehensive immigration reform that earned the ire of the right.  Despite an aggressive public relations strategy and outreach to Republican opinion makers, Rubio took a sustained pummeling.  During the first three months of the year, he led most national polls of GOP primary voters. Now he’s stuck at the bottom of the pack, often registering only in the single digits.  The whole experience has chastened the Florida freshman, who has tacked right on every issue since.  “Looks like he doesn’t like having fallen into the second tier,” muttered one Beltway lobbyist.  The only good news for Rubio is that his immigration gambit occurred early enough for him to rehabilitate and recover.  The lack of deal has prevented the blowback from being far worse.

6.  The Obamacare Debacle  

Republicans are convinced they have struck political gold in the botched rollout of Obamacare and seemingly all of the GOP candidates will point to the problems as evidence that an activist government can’t be trusted.  For the GOP, it’ll be preaching to the choir.  Whoever the Democratic candidate is, on the other hand, will have to navigate the issue with more political dexterity.  Republicans are already circulating Clinton’s 2007 quote when she similarly promised people would be able to keep their own health insurance. Nonetheless, some Democrats even believe that by 2016—once the website kinks have been fixed and millions have enrolled—the issue will turn into a net plus.