Friday Focus: Scandal and the Politics of 2016

This is the first post in a long-promised new weekly feature on current events and political perspectives. Let me know what you think!


Sometimes in politics, the shit hits the fan.  For those in the administration, this past two weeks must definitely feel like such a time.

Months of Republican stalling tactics in Congress, political stalemates over fiscal policy, and the dragging out of an “investigation” into the Benghazi incident were all wearisome enough for the White House without the breaking of two actual scandals: the IRS targeting conservative political groups and the Department of Justice secretly obtaining massive amounts of communication records which compromise the integrity of one the nations largest press organizations.

McConnell meeting with President Barack Obama.
McConnell meeting with President Barack Obama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Republican strategy before these stories became public was pretty straightforward: as their leadership in Congress has openly stated numerous times, the Republican agenda is to make the Obama presidency a failure on all fronts.  As Mitch McConnell made clear early on the in President’s first term, the chief Republican goal of the last five years was to make Obama a one-term President.  And even though this strategy failed to win back the Senate or the White House in the previous election (and in fact cost the Republicans ground in the House), it has succeeded, with a few notable exceptions, in preventing the administration’s agenda from making much headway.  So despite the previous election results, Republicans in Congress have continued the same tactics as before.  Now that two major scandals for the administration have come to light, it must seem as if their plan is ensured success.  The White House is scrambling to regain its political footing, and whatever bargaining power it still held with Congress is almost certainly lost (at least until after the mid-terms).  Seemingly this President is being reduced, only four months into his second term, to lame duck status.

Even still, as with most things in politics, the present isn’t actually what’s at stake here.  The real battle that’s being fought is about 2016.

Benghazi is a case-and-point for this: despite nothing of particular substance being found after months of investigation into the attack on the compound, House Republicans continue to drill deeper, focusing in particular on two individuals believed to be at the heart of a massive conspiracy and/or cover-up: current Democratic President Barack Obama and, according to much conventional wisdom, the presumptive next Democratic nominee for President Hillary Clinton.  The strategy seems clear: if Benghazi can be made into a major scandal and failure for the administration, and the blame can, at least in part, be connected to Clinton, then she would enter the election with significant baggage to overcome, making it easier for Republicans to defeat her.  The Benghazi investigation, at the end of the day, is opposition research being conducted in the chambers of Congress.

Likewise, the scandals which broke last week, while potentially slamming the brakes on the President’s agenda for the next four years, also have the potential, if Republican leadership plays their cards right, to be radioactive for the Democratic party in both 2014 and 2016.  Now any claims about government oversight or regulation that Democrats make in the next election cycle can be countered with real-life examples of government abuses of power which damaged American freedoms, potentially disillusioning the Democratic base and energizing the Republican.  These scandals are a gold-mine of political capital for the Republican party in the next round of elections, that much is clear.

So the Republican strategy continues to be about digging into the trenches for the next electoral cycle.  Which isn’t to say Democrats aren’t also concerned with the next election, its just to say the Republican strategy seems much more visible at the moment.

The real question is whether or not this strategy can work.  And the answer, I think, is that it can, but not the way the leadership in Washington is anticipating.

First, a historical consideration:  it is extremely rare for a party to win the White House with back-to-back presidents.  In fact there are only two times in Modern American history that this can be said to have happened.  The most obvious was Reagan-Bush.  Less obvious, we might consider Truman’s narrow re-election win to fit into the same category (even though he inherited the office on FDR’s death, his re-election did result in the White House being held by the Democrats for two consecutive Presidents with an intervening election).  Furthermore, as both of these cases show, the second President in such a sequence is usually much less popular than the first (Bush did not win re-election, Truman barely won).  So from a historical perspective, there is a very significant chance that a Republican will win the 2016 election.  As Obama’s agenda becomes less successful and his popularity shrinks, this becomes even more likely.

So there is a sense in which the Republican strategy is overkill, especially in the second-term.  Obama’s popularity is not nearly strong enough to carry another Democrat to an electoral win.  Benghazi, in addition to Clinton’s revelation of serious health concerns, is very likely to convince her not to run.  A win by a Democrat from within the administration seems, from both a political and a historical perspective, exceptionally unlikely.

So why continue the strategy?

Republicans have, in both of the last two elections, committed themselves to a strategy of charging up the conservative base instead of playing to the middle.  And in both cases, this strategy has failed them.  Such a strategy is likely to fail again.  While the scandals besetting the administration might discourage Democrats from coming out in droves and/or dissuade moderates from voting Democrat, that momentum could be reversed by a far-right pick for the Republican nominee, someone who might mobilize the Democratic base into action or scare moderates away from the Republican column.

If Republicans truly wish to capitalize on the political misfortunes of the White House in 2016 they are going to have to choose a candidate who can appeal to a wide variety of voters, not just the Republican base that has hated President Obama since his convention speech in 2004, while simultaneously keeping the image of a beleaguered Democratic administration affixed to the image of whoever the Democratic nominee is.  To do this Republicans will need a nominee whose image is not that of a far-right curmudgeon who has been yapping at the President’s heals for 8 years.  In other words, if the Republican nominee is going to win in 2016, they can’t be from inside Washington.  Especially not if the Democrats choose someone with distance from the administration to be their standard bearer.

So what does this mean for 2016?  Here is my analysis: if the Democrats pick a candidate from outside of Washington and the Republican nominee is a Marco Rubio/Rand Paul/Paul Ryan type from inside the beltway, then anticipate a narrow win for the Democrats resulting from moderates swinging back their way.

To win, the Republicans are going to need to pick someone whose public identity is more than just Obama-bashing.  From the likely list of Republican candidates, three names are worth mentioning: Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former Governor Jon Huntsman from Utah.  If the Republican party rallies around one of these three candidates (or someone like them), they stand a chance in 2016 of returning to the Oval Office.

Now the real question:  Will the Republicans change their tune in time?  That seems increasingly unclear.  With Marco Rubio and Rand Paul grabbing most of the spotlight these days, bad blood between the Romney/Ryan camp and Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal still a relative unknown on the national stage, and Jon Huntsman speaking in Mandarin still his most well-known public moment, I’m anticipating more of the same from the GOP.  But if the far-right strategy fails again in 2016 (which I think highly likely) and a Democrat from outside Washington wins the Presidency, the resulting body-blow to the Republican party may be the wake-up call they need to finally change their tactics.


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