In a week that will be dominated by the debt ceiling and Republican efforts to defund Obamacare, there will be an irresistible desire to view the outcome as having real political consequences for 2014 and the next presidential race. Let me offer a different view: nothing that happens this week will have much impact come Election Day next year or beyond.
Why? Little of this week’s melodrama is likely to affect the quality of life of most Americans. As Sen. Rand Paul observed, Obamacare is overwhelmingly likely to continue. The debt ceiling will be raised. Some politicians will have a good week and some a bad one, but most Americans just don’t care.
The real line of scrimmage in American politics is the economy. More than any single factor, the voter’s view of his or her own economic situation determines the vote. In November 2011, when Nate Silver famously predicted that President Obama had a 17 percent chance of winning reelection, the Republican Party had an approval rating of 35 percent, a terrible number that is about what it is today. But the more dominating number was the lowly 43 percent of voters who approved of Obama’s handling of the economy. On Election Day 2012, exit polls showed a significant gain for Obama, with his overall job approval up to 53 percent. Among voters who believed the economy was improving, Obama won a staggering 90 percent.
With no incumbent on the ballot in 2016, the electoral fate of the two parties almost surely will be determined by which party or presidential candidate is seen as best able to handle the economy. Right now, both parties are stumbling. But the Republicans have the greatest opportunity to offer an alternate economic vision to the Obama doldrums. Unfortunately, from my viewpoint, it’s hard to argue that opportunity is being realized.
Put quite simply, to win the 2014 and 2016 cycles, Republicans must be seen as fighting for those who feel abandoned by their government and are struggling to get ahead in a sputtering economy. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, in an intriguing speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute, linked the anger of the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. In a broad denunciation of the powers of entrenched special interests, Lee observed, “There is a very good reason why Americans across the political spectrum, from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, believe our system has become rigged.”
He’s right. It’s not a coincidence that both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement exploded after the economic crash. Look into their ranks and you’ll find few individuals making more than $100,000 a year, trust-fund Occupy types aside.
Most of those drawn to both groups feel passionately that large forces beyond their control are wreaking havoc on their lives. They’ve lost faith in the basic social compact of America, that working hard and playing by the rules will bring a brighter future.
In the past, Republicans have made common ground with these kinds of voters by fighting for individual tax cuts and smaller government. Those are still basic principles that voters support, but their electoral power has faded. Mitt Romney won the majority of households making $50,000 a year and up. That’s household income, not individual, so we are talking about a husband and wife making $26,000 a year as falling into the pro-Romney camp.
But Romney lost households making less than $50,000, and for most of those voters, the promise of federal tax cuts has little appeal. These voters are not happy voters, and they have suffered greatly in the Obama years. But they don’t hate government and understandably welcome any help they can get from any source. A fight over the debt ceiling is as alien to them as a strike by professional athletes. And while most are troubled by the uncertainty of Obamacare, they are not the epicenter of the anti-Obamacare movement. These voters are restless and frightened, and deeply cynical about politics.
In all likelihood, the next two elections will be “change” elections, and those defending the status quo will suffer. But the tone of that change is critical. In 2008, the Obama campaign understood the mandate to walk a fine line between representing positive change and change that threatened. For all our electoral bombast and passion, Americans don’t like radical change.
In a speech last week, Obama took a victory lap for his performance on the economy. That’s not surprising. Most presidents think they’re doing a good job. But as even The New York Times highlighted in an editorial, “15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, live in poverty ... The struggling middle class is also faring poorly.” The basic truth is that five years into the Obama presidency, the rich have gotten richer and the poor are poorer.
It’s doubtful that any Democrat will be running on the achievements of the Obama economic plan. For starters, Obama hasn’t defined an economic plan other than to increase taxes on the top earners, and that’s been done.
This vacuum is a huge opportunity for Republicans. Tax cuts and fighting government spending aren’t going to get us the promised land. Lee recognized that when he took a critical look at the current image of the Republican Party and argued, correctly, that it was time “to move beyond what we are against to what we are for, to what we are.”
Harvesting the anger and discontent of so many Americans into not only specific policy but a broader construct that captures anger and offers hope is the great challenge for Republicans. It’s not easy, but the stakes couldn’t be greater. The candidate who best meets that challenge is likely to be our next president.