Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.
So what is the mood at this moment? The predominant feeling of Americans, according to polling data, is deeply unsettled and anxious, the product in large part of the multiplying failures of the Obama administration.
Think of the list from just the last year, from the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov to the VA scandal, the flood of immigrants (many of them children) crossing the southern border, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, Islamist advances in Libya, the colossal misjudgment about ISIS and the half-hearted air campaign the president is waging against it, and now the string of mistakes by the CDC in dealing with the Ebola virus.
Beyond this is the sluggishness of the economy, which has lasted the entire Obama presidency. Despite some encouraging recent jobs reports, overall the situation remains quite problematic: a drop in median household income even after the recession officially ended, the unusually low workforce participation rate (the lowest in 36 years), the broader failures of the Affordable Care Act, the rise in income inequality (nearing its highest levels of the last 100 years) and poverty (the poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three consecutive years, the first time that has happened since the mid-1960s), the record number of people on food stamps and the fact that this year China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy, the first time America has been in second place since 1872. It’s little wonder, then, that only around a quarter of Americans believe the country is on the right track.
In addition to all this, there are longer-term trends, such as middle-class Americans working longer hours than they did since 1979 while median net worth is lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1989. Trust in government is at all-time lows. Disdain for the political class (especially Congress and the media) is sky-high. Americans are less trusting of our public institutions and of one another. More and more of us are living in “ideological silos”. Two-thirds of Americans think it is harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents, and three quarters believe it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Americans are pessimistic, feeling unusually vulnerable and polarized. (Political polarization is “the defining feature of early 21st century American politics,” according to the Pew Research Center.)
Given all of this, and assuming that in two years the political environment and psychological state of Americans is roughly what it is now, it’s interesting to contemplate some of the qualities they may be looking for in a GOP nominee.
My guess: A conservative who radiates competence, steadiness, and reassurance; who is perceived as principled, reform-minded, and reality-based; and who’s comfortably associated with a middle-class governing agenda. “Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some,” is how former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels put it in 2011, and his critique still holds. This can be done while also focusing needed attention on those living in the shadows of society.
In the aftermath of the Obama era, Americans will be a good deal more skeptical of empty, extravagant rhetoric. The public can also do without political figures comparing themselves to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Jesus (all of whom Obama or his closest aides have compared Mr. Obama to). A modesty about what government can accomplish would be most welcomed; so would distrust of those who cling to ideology even when facts argue the contrary.
Voters are likely to trust individuals who have demonstrated a mastery of governing and can identify with, and have something to say about, the challenges facing many Americans. (One example is soaring higher education costs, a subject very few Republicans talk about and even fewer Republicans have solutions for.) The Republican Party’s standard-bearer certainly needs to be perceived as modern, future-oriented, and understanding the ways the world is changing.
A GOP nominee will also have to speak more to people’s aspirations than to their fears. A campaign that could be symbolized by an angry, clenched fist won’t work. Demonstrating touches of grace and winsomeness probably will. And because Republicans are on a long-term losing streak at the presidential level, including having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, they’ll need to find someone who is able to do more than rally the faithful. They’ll have to win over a significant number of people who are not now voting Republican but are persuadable. Which means Republicans might want to look to someone characterized by intellectual depth and calm purpose rather than stridency. In a recent speech, Tony Blair said, “In the end parties can please themselves or please the people.” He contrasted those who have the character of a governing party with those who seem like the shriekers at the gates outside. That’s a distinction worth bearing in mind.
To be sure, no single individual will embody all these qualities, and someone may well come along who personifies other characteristics in a way that is highly appealing. In addition, of course, politics is never static. But my guess is that given the mood and attitudes of Americans right now, some combination of the traits I’ve sketched out will be needed if Republicans hope to win.
While I fully expect Republicans to do quite well in the mid-term elections 15 days from now, it’s worth recalling that Republicans did historically well in 2010 (adding 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate) yet lost the presidency and House and Senate seats in 2012. And like it or not, we’re in a period when the Republican Party’s image has reached a historic low; when a majority of Americans said last year that the GOP is out of touch (62 percent), not open to change (56 percent), and too extreme (52 percent); and when, at the presidential level at least, the GOP faces an uphill climb.
President Obama’s cascading failures will make things easier for Republicans in 2016, but it still won’t be easy.