The Magazine

2014 ≠ 2016

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Polls are overrated, but they can be still instructive. So what’s to be learned from a Fox News survey of 1,012 registered voters conducted April 13-15? 

Mrs. Clinton

Republicans are in pretty good shape for this fall. President Obama is unpopular. He’s got a 42 percent job approval rating, compared with 51 percent disapproval, and his personal favorable/unfavorable rating isn’t much better at 45/51. The Republican party has gained ground in recent months and is now as well regarded as the Democratic party, with both about even in approval/disapproval. What’s more, other polls show the generic ballot about even (and Republicans almost always outperform the generic ballot on Election Day), and state by state surveys confirm that the Republicans could well win control of the Senate and pick up some additional House seats.

So 2014 looks fine; 2016 doesn’t.

This is despite the fact that Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, has only a 49-45 favorable rating in the Fox poll, down from 56-38 last June. This result (and similar findings in other surveys) suggests she’s not an unbeatable candidate. When Barack Obama won the last open-seat presidential race in 2008, his favorable rating in the Fox poll on Election Day was 57-39. So 49-45 isn’t daunting.

But it’s good enough to beat any of the Republican candidates tested in the Fox News poll. In fact, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz all have net unfavorable ratings. And so Clinton beats them all by at least eight points. Other surveys also have Clinton defeating various possible Republican nominees quite easily.

At the moment, then, Republicans seem likely to win in 2014 and to lose in 2016. The good news is that the 2014 election comes first, and the Democrats don’t seem to have much chance to change this year’s dynamic. Republicans do have the time and opportunity to change the dynamic of 2016. The bad news is the most likely Republican presidential candidates seem to have little inkling of how to do so. An ever more intensive clobbering of Hillary Clinton will reach a point of diminishing returns. It’s quite possible, even likely, that a majority of Americans will be unenthusiastic by November 2016 about the prospect of a Clinton presidency. But it seems very unlikely that critics will succeed in disqualifying her, in the eyes of a majority of voters, as a potential president.

Which means a Republican is actually going to have to win the presidency in 2016.

It’s been a long time since a nonincumbent Republican has actually won a presidential election. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote. In 1988, Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater succeeded in demolishing Michael Dukakis, and George H. W. Bush was able to secure what was in effect Ronald Reagan’s third term. In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran against a deeply unpopular incumbent, and in 1968 Richard Nixon defeated the incumbent vice president of a failed Democratic administration. In 1952, Americans liked Ike.

We don’t have another Ike. Probably the best model for 2016 is Reagan in 1980. In addition to benefiting from Jimmy Carter’s problems, Reagan did run on a big and bold governing agenda at a time the country sensed it needed one.

Do Republicans have such an agenda today? Not yet. Do they have candidates who are in search of such an agenda? Not clear. It’s not merely, as is often said, that the Republican presidential field lacks a Reagan. It’s that the Republican party seems to lack leaders who even want to be a Reagan. Reagan was a full-spectrum conservative. But even more important, he was a full-spectrum candidate.

Such a candidate would explain how he would stand up to Vladimir Putin, and he would stand up for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. He would not just offer a critique of Obamacare but would set forth an alternative to it, and he would also be championing alternatives to other features of nanny-state liberalism. He would embody the best impulses of the Tea Party while channeling the sentiments of Middle America. He would seek not to contain Obama-era liberalism but to transcend it, explaining why it should go down as some bizarre chapter in American history whose last pages are even now being written.

Every poll shows the American public, by about two to one, thinks the nation is on the wrong track. That’s the track of contemporary liberalism. It’s the track Hillary Clinton has diligently chugged along for her entire adult life. As president, she’d be a dutiful chaperone of further American decline. The American people deserve better. If given a real choice between an invigorated conservatism and a decadent liberalism, voters might well make the right decision. Will they be given that choice in 2016?

 

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