November 13, 2014

FORKEN | A Political Strategy Guide Leading to 2016

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On November 4, the Republican Party emphatically regained control of the Senate. In the 2014 midterms, the GOP emerged victorious in practically every swing state and nearly pulled a historic upset with Republican Ed Gillespie coming up a mere 16,000 votes (.8 percent of the vote) short of unsetting Democratic Senator Mark Warner in Virginia. Turnout was abysmally low, setting a 72-year low of 36.3 percent, indicating that voter trends observed last week may not hold come the 2016 elections. Nonetheless, it’s worth examining the governing strategies each party may pursue as President Obama manages his last two years in office.

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, many political pundits have stated that the time has come for the GOP to prove to the American people that they are capable of not just obstructionist rhetoric, but actual governing. However, with the evident end being a Republican president come 2016, actual governing may not prove to be the most effective means.

For whatever reason, Democrats campaigning in 2014 were deathly afraid of the president, claiming that his presence on the campaign trail would be toxic to their electoral chances. While that approach clearly failed, it may have succeeded in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of the president’s national image, directly impacting Democratic candidates naturally associated with Obama.

Funny thing is, the president has given his party much to run on. The unemployment rate stands at 5.8 percent and the current string of continued job growth month after month is the longest on record. This lack of credit may because growing GDP hasn’t necessarily yet translated in to a better-middle class economy — but this was also true in the 2012 midterms, in which the Democrats proved victorious. Perhaps the more likely reason is, according to UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck, “there is a strong relationship between the nation’s growth rate and presidential vote share, but no relationship between the nation’s growth rate and Senate (or House) seat loss in midterm years.”

So, while economic growth didn’t give the Democrats any help last week, come 2016, Democrats may actually be safe if the economy continues to grow.

Moving forward, Democratic Congresspersons have two obvious options: continue to separate themselves from the president or resume the bitter partisan politics in Washington. Either route may prove detrimental to Democratic chances in 2016.

If Democrats elect to avoid association with Obama, any passed legislation will be credited to the Republicans, as the moderate Democratic Senators would have either voted with the Republicans or chosen not to filibuster GOP bills. The next step in this process likely involves President Obama vetoing any explicit Republican legislation that lacks compromise. Now, in 2016, Republican strategists can place the blame on the president and paint him as an obstructionist who prevented the GOP from advancing a substantial agenda. Obviously, President Obama cannot run again in 2016, but this caricature of the party will undoubtedly damage the Democratic nominee.

On the other hand, if the Democrats decide to back the president the next two years, then the partisan gridlock will almost certainly continue and the blame will again be placed on the Democrats for impeding legislation. It’s basically a lose-lose for the Democrats.

In other words, the GOP may benefit from churning out partisan bill after partisan bill; very well knowing that Obama will veto the bill. Even if the bills are objectively bad legislation, the vast majority of the American people will simply see the president acting on his own behalf and hurting the country. While the 2014 midterms demonstrate that the GOP clearly wasn’t negatively affected by their six years of blockading legislation, that’s because all politics are local.

Congress has an approval rating that hovers around a remarkable 15 percent, yet incumbents are consistently re-elected because citizens don’t believe their representative is the issue — but, in fact, on the aggregate, they are! Voters didn’t place the blame on individual GOP Congresspersons, but instead on the president, quite simply because at the end of they day the president is the face of the nation.

On the contrary, if the tables turn and the president becomes the obstructionist, no matter the content of bills he may be rejecting, he will be blamed, because, well, he is the face of the nation.

The only potential saving grace for the Democrats is the impending Establishment v. Ultra-Conservative showdowns almost sure to play out in Congress. With Ted Cruz possibly vying for a presidential campaign in 2016, along with his already established Tea-Party base in Congress as well as newcomers such as Joni Ernst and Glenn Grothman, the conservative wing of the GOP may be unwilling to compromise even with their own Establishment leaders, much less the Democrats. If this happens, although gridlock will certainly continue as the GOP bickers amongst themselves, the Democrats will be able to campaign on the mantra that a GOP majority clearly can’t function.

While engaging in bipartisan legislation may aid individual Democrats in their reelection campaigns, there is little reason for either party to cede major ground with 2016 in mind. Expect the gridlock in Washington to continue.