Dozing off as we pored through a raft of mostly meaningless polls this week, we were startled awake by one set of findings. The CNN/ORC survey released February 18 was The Weekly Standard’s own little fire bell in the night.
What, you surely ask, alarmed us so?
We’ve been optimistic about 2016. After all, parties do seem to lose the White House after two terms. Since 1952, when one party has completed eight years in the Oval Office, voters have turned over the presidency at the end of that span to the other party in every case but one. We’ve tended to assume that 2016 would likely follow the pattern of 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, and 2008—which of course would mean a Republican taking the presidential oath in 2017.
We were certainly aware of the skunk-at-the-garden-party observation that the elections of 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000 were all very close. In each of these cases, even though the incumbent party had suffered all kinds of problems during its eight years in the Oval Office (a recession, Vietnam, Watergate, impeachment), it nonetheless came within a point or two of hanging on for a third term. Even in 2008, the McCain-Palin ticket was more or less even with Obama-Biden until the financial cataclysm hit in mid-September.
So perhaps a third term in the White House might not be as much of an uphill struggle as we wanted to think. And in 1988, George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis easily to secure a third GOP term in succession. We were already aware of the nagging possibility that Hillary Clinton could do in 2016 what George H. W. Bush did in 1988. The CNN/ORC poll elevated that unpleasant possibility to a clear and present fear.
The survey asked whether each of seven presidential possibilities better represented the future or the past. All four Republicans (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker) were viewed by a plurality of respondents as representing the past more than the future. Jeb Bush fared much the worst: 64 percent of Americans considered him as representing the past, only 33 percent the future.
As for the Democrats, the good news was that Vice President Joe Biden had identically poor numbers to Jeb Bush. The not-so-great news was that Elizabeth Warren’s future-vs.-past numbers were a strongly positive 46-37. The truly alarming news was that senior citizen Hillary Clinton, who has been at the center of the national stage for over two decades, managed a positive 50-48 result.
So voters (admittedly, by a small margin) think Hillary Clinton “represents the future.” And they believe all the Republicans represent the past. Yikes.
What’s going on? Well, it’s true that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president. That’s something new, and there’s not much any of the likely GOP nominees can do about that.
One thing Republicans could do is nominate someone like Scott Walker instead of Jeb Bush. Walker’s numbers (39 future/42 past) at least put him within hailing distance of Hillary Clinton. Maybe one of the possible candidates not included in the poll (Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz? Mike Pence?) would do better on the past/future question. But the numbers that we have do suggest a deeper Republican problem.
Despite the beginnings of a reform conservative agenda, despite attempts to address populist concerns with Main Street economic policies, and despite the wish to liberate the GOP from the image that it’s the party of Bush/Dole/Bush/McCain/Romney, none of these efforts seems to have really taken hold yet. Perhaps one will over the next two years.
Or perhaps it won’t matter. Perhaps some new set of concerns in 2016 will overwhelm all the past/future talk. Given the state of the world, that’s quite possible. We could easily have a foreign policy election in 2016. And then people might not mind a steady hand, even if one from the past (think Richard Nixon in 1968).
But would that be bad for Hillary? She’ll have more foreign policy experience than any of the GOP candidates. And in the absence of a bold Republican foreign and defense policy agenda that really breaks from the status quo (think Reagan 1980), it’s not so clear that the agenda of the GOP foreign policy establishment will be that much more attractive than that of the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic foreign policy establishment.
It’s of course very early in the 2016 cycle. But it’s never too early for some healthy alarm. Are we the only ones who are struck that many of the leading Republican candidates, whether moderate or conservative, seem to be planning stale and tired campaigns? Hillary will herself, it’s safe to predict, run a stale campaign with tired themes. But the polls suggest she would prevail in a conventional matchup of boring campaigns.
We’re all free to ignore the fire bell in the night, and hope for the best. But it would be a shame to have to explain in November 2016 how the Republican party decided to sleepwalk to defeat.