Let me risk ridicule by mentioning the ruthless Vladimir Putin and the clueless Joe Biden in the same sentence: The emergence of Putin abroad and Biden at home could reshape the 2016 Republican presidential race.
Putin: The decline in American power and prestige under our current president, culminating in the deal with Iran, has become so pronounced that Putin’s Russia has virtually replaced Obama’s America as the center of gravity in Middle East politics. Under Obama, the White House is still the world’s premier venue for fancy receptions. But the Kremlin is where the work gets done.
How have the Republican candidates for president reacted to this extraordinary development? Have they reacted at all? They say many of the right things. But have they adjusted to the gravity of the moment? Do they grasp the magnitude of the task that would lie before them as president in a post-Iran deal, post-Syria collapse, post-occupied Ukraine, post-rise of ISIS world? At best, the jury is still out.
Biden: Meanwhile, on the domestic scene, the odds are increasing that the Democratic ticket in 2016 will consist of Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Republicans have assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. If she were, the election would be in large measure a referendum on Hillary, and that would be on the whole favorable to Republicans. A Biden-Warren ticket complicates things.
It’s true that making the case for what will in effect be a third Obama term would be a burden for Biden. On the other hand, running with Warren would adjust the economic message in a more populist direction. And Biden would remind voters that though growth has been tepid, there’s been no recession on Obama’s watch, to say nothing of a major financial meltdown. As for foreign policy, he’ll point out we’ve gotten out of the wars we were fighting and entered no new ones, and he’ll dare Republicans to really convince voters that the world has become much more dangerous on Obama’s watch.
Such a strategy wouldn’t give a Biden-led ticket better than a 50-50 chance in 2016; but it probably would give Democrats a better chance than a Hillary ticket. Consider the new Quinnipiac poll, released September 24. Hillary Clinton loses narrowly to almost every GOP candidate against whom she’s tested. Joe Biden wins narrowly. It’s only a difference of a few points, but in today’s highly polarized environment, with just a small slice of swing voters, that’s how general elections tend to be decided. The two key findings from the survey: Hillary Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable rating among all voters is 41 percent to 55 percent. Joe Biden’s is 50 percent to 34 percent. That difference could turn a losing Democratic campaign into a winning one.
Indeed, the only Republicans with better net favorability than Biden are Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Carson is a fine man but will not be the nominee. Fiorina may or may not rise to the occasion. Marco Rubio and John Kasich are the only other Republicans within hailing distance of Biden—but they’re not nearly as well known, and haven’t been subjected to a real negative assault. The other Republicans are underwater.
All of this raises the specter of a 1988-type campaign, where an incumbent vice president is able to exploit weaknesses in the record of an inexperienced challenger to make it through to victory. We believe the current field of Republican candidates is superior to Michael Dukakis. But so did the Democrats in 1987 believe Michael Dukakis would prove a superior candidate.
Republicans have been telling themselves that this is the strongest field in years, and that the GOP has a deep bench. But as Sean Trende pointed out at Real Clear Politics this week, the two aren’t quite the same thing. It is a deep field, with lots of credible, reasonably impressive candidates. But a deep field doesn’t guarantee a strong nominee. It’s like having a pitching staff with lots of above-average pitchers. It’s better than not having them—but in the playoffs you need an ace or two. Will the Republican field produce an ace?
It’s only the end of September. In 1979, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in November. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his in October. This year, Scott Walker went from frontrunner to ex-candidate in 10 weeks. In an extraordinarily fluid and volatile environment, there’s plenty of time for the current candidates to up their game. And there’s even time for a new candidate or two to get in. Republicans can’t count on coasting to victory behind a journeyman nominee.
And if Republicans don’t win, we face the prospect of living in Vladimir Putin’s world and Joe Biden’s America.