There is a lot of vocal lamenting these days about the
Republican Party’s lack of a positive political message
as it heads into the 2014 national midterm elections and
the 2016 presidential election.
The answer to this assertion is that a political party rarely
does have its own policy message when campaigning to
replace its opposition in power.
When a party in power falters, voters are less interested
historically in the program of the opposition party, and
more likely to be responsive to the negative criticism
about, or relief from, the party in power’s record. This
was true in presidential election years 1920, 1932, 1952,
1968, 1976, 1980, 1992 and 2008 when the party of the
incumbent was replaced by the opposition party’s
candidate. Whether it was criticism of the policies of
Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman,
Lyndon Johnson, Jerry Ford (Nixon). George H.W. Bush
or George W. Bush, the result brought in a new party
In 1960 and 2000 by contrast, the winning party did have
a message more than, or other than, pure criticism. President
Eisenhower had been popular, but John F. Kennedy
promised charisma and a “New Frontier” (and narrowly won).
President Clinton ended his presidency more popular than he
began it, but George W. Bush offered “compassionate
conservatism” and no personal scandals (and he did not win
the popular vote).
2016 will likely be an example of the former, and more
common, transition, if there is to be one. As we head into
the second half (and lame-duck phase) of President
Obama’s presidency, he is beset with serious economic and
political problems --- continued ambivaence in the economy,
the extreme disaster of his Obamacare legislation, lack of
progress on major policy reforms in education, and lack of
success in many of his foreign policies. There is a growing
“Obama fatigue” just as there was an acute “Bush fatigue”
in 2008. The “Reagan revolution” was not apparent in the
1980 presidential campaign, nor was the Obama move to the
left apparent in the 2008 campaign. Earlier, the New Deal
itself only emerged after Franklin Roosevelt took office.
Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952 on his promise to
“go to Korea” and on his popular reputation from World
War II; Eisenhower’s policies only came into view after his
Future presidents do not usually want to show their policy
hands before taking office. They usually succeed because
economic and/or foreign policy conditions have failed during
their predecessor’s administration. This clearly seems to be
the case as the nation begins to move to its next presidential
administration in 2016.
Hillary Clinton is the early prohibitive favorite for her party’s
nomination, but this is primarily because she is by far the
most well-known, at this point, of any other Democratic Party
contender, and because she might be the first woman
president. Her “policies,” however, cannot be much different in
substance from President Obama’s, especially since she was a
major part of his first term administration. If she criticizes
Mr. Obama’s policies, she splits her party. She can only imply
that her administration would fix Mr. Obama’s mistakes.
President Obama has attempted to move national policy
significantly to the left with his “tax the rich,” high regulatory
and Washington, DC-directed policies. Mrs. Clinton’s political
history is really not much different. As first lady early in her
husband’s presidency, she was credited with an even more
extreme reform of healthcare than Obamacare. She was a very
liberal senator from New York. Her record as secretary of
state includes Honduras, Argentina, the Middle East and
Benghazi. (Mrs. Clinton might well be nominated, and she could
be elected, but history indicates that those who consider her
being the first woman president to be her “sure” ticket to the
White House, might be underestimating the impact on voters of
her ties to the outgoing administration.)
On the other hand, none of her major Republican rivals stand
yet for some major new direction of policy other than a
general impression of a more conservative approach,
i.e., lower taxes, fewer regulations, less federal spending,
less federal mandates of policies from Washington, DC, and a
return to better relationships with Israel, Great Britain,
Canada and the nations of South America.
It is true that Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio do
represent more abrupt rightward direction if any of them
were elected president, but for that very reason, they are
probably unelectable if nominated, and thus very unlikely to
be nominated. Although outspoken “hard” right conservatives
always complain about the Republican Party nominating more
center right candidates, they are the ONLY candidates who can
win presidential elections. Since World War II, the GOP has
won with Eisenhower, Nixon (in his second race, running as a
moderate), Reagan, and two Bushes. Nixon in his
first race against Kennedy and Goldwater against Johnson had
too conservative images. Ford, Dole, McCain and Romney were
more center right, but ultimately weak as presidential candidates.
If the economy remains troubled in 2016, and U.S. security and
prestige in the world seems diminished, the Democratic
presidential nominee will be on the defensive. Mr. Obama’s
successful model in such circumstances in 2012 was to first
injure the image of his Republican opponent, and second, to
identify and motivate his voter base at the polls while hoping
the GOP did not do as well. It worked. Will it work for Mrs.
Clinton or any other Democratic nominee in 2016?
If Chis Christie, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush or some new GOP figure is
to win in 2016, we will know a lot more about what they are
against than what they would do as president. That might not
seem “right” or “fair,” but that’s how it usually goes, as I have
pointed out, in U.S. national politics (and it applies, as I have also
pointed out, equally to Democrats and Republicans).
If Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama
had run explicitly on the policies they in fact did pursue in the
White House, they very likely would not have been elected
This is the great American presidential election paradox.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.