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2016 or Bust

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Commenting on the results of the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, NBC’s Chuck Todd remarked, “This poll is a disaster for the president.” Indeed, he continued, “essentially the public is saying, ‘Your presidency is over.’ ” 

Clinton

But it isn’t over. It won’t be over for two and a half years. And that’s a problem.

We’re generally inclined to defend our presidential system of government as opposed to a parliamentary alternative. But if we weren’t so set in our ways and such fans of the Founders, this is one of those moments that could lead us to rethink our allegiance. It sure would be nice to be able to move a vote of no confidence in an American parliament right now, and take the issue of who should govern to the country. It would be wonderful not to be stuck with Barack Obama for two and a half more years. 

But of course in our system, even if it were discovered that Barack Obama personally took a hammer to Lois Lerner’s hard drive in the Lincoln bedroom, and Obama were impeached and convicted, we’d end up with President Joe Biden. Which would be good for the late night comedians, but no better for America.

So what is to be done? Minimize the damage in the present, develop serious alternatives for the future, win the Senate in November, and, above all, win the presidency in 2016 with the best possible candidate with the strongest possible mandate for the boldest possible agenda.

Speaking of 2016, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had a couple of interesting findings on the question of who might be our next president. The good news is that while 38 percent of respondents say they “probably” or “almost certainly” will vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 37 percent say they “definitely” will not vote for her. This means that Clinton, the candidate with by far the highest name recognition and the longest résumé, starts off at about 50-50. And while her approval numbers remain decent, they’re falling: Today, 44 percent view her positively against 37 percent negatively. Just two months ago, those numbers were 48 percent positive, and only 32 percent negative. 

By contrast, in the sixth year of the Bush administration, John McCain, the frontrunner and eventual nominee of the party in power, had a favorable rating in the mid-50s and an unfavorable number in the mid-20s. And of course he lost. 

Here’s another set of precedents to cheer us up—if we can survive the next two years. Since World War II, the party seeking to hold the White House for a third term has done significantly worse than it did in the preceding presidential election. Here are the numbers:

Eisenhower won his second term in 1956 by 15 percentage points. Nixon lost in 1960 by 0.1. Drop: 15 points.

Johnson won in 1964 by 22 points. Humphrey lost in 1968 by 1 point. Drop: 23 points.

Nixon won in 1972 by 23 points. Ford lost by 2 points in 1976. Drop: 25 points.

Reagan won in 1984 by 18; Bush won in 1988 by 8. Drop: 10 points.

Clinton won in 1996 by 9; Gore carried the popular vote in 2000 by half a point. Drop: 8 points.

Bush won by 2 points in 2004; McCain lost by 7 in 2008. Drop:
9 points.

So the average swing away from the party seeking a third straight term in the White House is 15 points. One could say that the 1950s-80s were a different era in American politics. Fair enough. But even in the two cases since the Cold War, the swing has been 8 points. Obama, as it happens, won reelection in 2012 by 4 points. 

Republicans have a good chance to win the presidency in 2016. Meanwhile, they need to do their best to make sure our situation at home remains fixable, and, even more daunting, that the world situation is salvageable. And then Republicans have to nominate someone who can win and who, as president, can right the ship of state after the wreckage of eight years of Obama. Not easy tasks. But no one ever said the challenges of self-government are easy.

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