Commentary Magazine


Topic: Republican Party

A Lawless Presidency Will Destroy Itself

There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

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There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

The GOP-controlled Congress doesn’t appear to have legislative options that won’t involve funding measures that can be portrayed as a new government shutdown. Though it would take presidential vetoes to kick off such a confrontation, with the help of a still docile mainstream media (see Grubergate), Republican leaders understand that this is a political trap they need to avoid. However, what Democrats who assume the mass amnesty will transform the political landscape in their favor and doom Republicans to perpetual defeat are ignoring is that the executive orders will change the terms of the debate about this issue. Though there may be no way of rescinding these orders while Obama remains in office, the real political trap may be the one that the president’s arrogant assumption of unprecedented personal power may be setting for his party.

As for the justification for this action, the notion that the president must act because Congress has not done so is utterly unconvincing even for those who support the cause of immigration reform.

The presence of an estimated 11 million illegals within our borders is a problem that must eventually be dealt with in a sensible manner. Mass deportations are neither feasible nor desirable, especially with those targeted by the president’s orders that may have children or other family members who are either citizens or legal residents. It is also true that many Republicans that supported the bipartisan immigration compromise that passed the Senate last year signed on to a process that would have given illegals a path, albeit a difficult one, to citizenship.

However, the need to address the problem doesn’t justify the president’s stand.

A measure that is imposed outside of the law that is not directly tied to border security and a reform of a broken immigration system does not solve the problem. If anything, as we saw last summer, such measures only encourage more illegal immigration. That surge of illegals proved that critics of the bipartisan bill were right and those of us (including me) who supported it were wrong. The border must be secured first and then and only then will it be possible to start sorting out those who are still here without permission. That was the approach favored by many in the House of Representatives last year and a new attempt at a fix to the problem should start there rather than trying to resurrect the Senate bill as the president demands.

That is why the administration’s narrative about the executive orders is simply false. Far from the president stepping in to provide a solution where Congress failed, what he is doing is making the problem worse, not better.

Far worse is the manner in which he is doing it.

It is, strictly speaking, within the president’s lawful authority to direct agencies operating under him to exercise prosecutorial discretion. But to do so on a mass scale isn’t merely unprecedented. It breaks new ground in the expansion of executive authority. As much as the president thinks the current law is inadequate to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, it is not up to him to unilaterally legislate a new solution. Only Congress may re-write the laws of the land. The idea of a president acting unilaterally to invalidate existing statutes in such a way as to change the status of millions of persons, however sympathetic we may be to their plight, places Obama outside the law and blaming Congress for inaction does not absolve him.

Nor can it be justified as falling within the executive’s right to act in a crisis.

There are circumstances when, usually in wartime, a crisis looms and broad presidential discretion is unavoidable. But as much as advocates for the illegals may trumpet their plight, this is not a ticking bomb that requires the normal constitutional order to be set aside. If majorities in both the House and the Senate could not be found to support a measure the president deemed important, he had the normal recourse of going to the people and asking them to elect a Congress that will do so. Unfortunately for those who claim that the president has no choice but to bypass Congress, we have just undergone such an election and the people’s answer was a resounding rebuff to the White House. The president may think it is in his interest to pretend as if the midterms should not determine his behavior in his final two years in office but it was he who said his policies were on the ballot. While there was an argument prior to November 4 that claimed that it was the GOP-controlled House that was thwarting public opinion on immigration, that claim disappeared in the Republican sweep.

That brings us to the long-term political consequences of this act.

While much has been made of the impact of amnesty on the Hispanic vote, with these orders the president is digging Democrats a hole that they will have difficulty climbing out of in the next two years.

Hispanics may be grateful for the temporary end of the deportations but it will not escape their notice that in doing so the president has ended any chance of immigration reform for the rest of his term. Nor will they be unaware that a GOP successor will invalidate amnesty with a stroke of the pen as easily as the president has enacted them. Republicans will rightly understand that there is no dealing with an administration that would rather go outside the law than first negotiate in good faith with a newly elected Congress on immigration. Nor can they be blamed for thinking any deal based on promises on border enforcement will be worthless with a president who thinks he has the right to simply order non-enforcement of the laws he doesn’t like.

Even more to the point, the orders will create a backlash among the rest of the electorate that always results when presidents begin to run afoul of both the law and public opinion. A lawless presidency is something that is, by definition, dysfunctional, and that is a term that has already defined Obama’s second term up until this point. Democrats who are counting on wild applause from their base should understand that just as Republicans learned that domination by their Tea Party wing undermines their electoral viability, they too should be wary of governing from the left.

The spectacle of mass amnesty without benefit of law will shock ordinary voters, including many who are Democrats or who think the immigration system should have been fixed. After the orders, responsibility for the failure to do so will rest on Obama, not the Republicans. What the president may be doing with these orders is to remind the voters that parties that grow too comfortable with exercising authority without benefit of law must be taught a lesson, one that will be paid for by his would-be Democratic successor in 2016. Rather than building his legacy, the president may actually be ensuring that his time in office is remembered more for his lack of respect for the rule of law than any actual accomplishments.

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Dems Learn No Lessons From Defeat

In case you were wondering what lessons Democrats were trying to learn from their historic drubbing in last week’s midterms, Politico provides an interesting insight into their thinking. According to the site, during a post-election conference call with Democratic members of the House, Rep. Diane DeGette of Colorado suggested that it was time for the party to “rethink” their message since so many young voters abandoned them and voted for Republican Cory Gardner in her state. The response from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was instructive. She abruptly “cut her off.” Like President Obama, Pelosi doesn’t think the loss is cause for the party to rethink anything. That leaves us asking what will it take for Democrats to draw any conclusions from an election defeat?

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In case you were wondering what lessons Democrats were trying to learn from their historic drubbing in last week’s midterms, Politico provides an interesting insight into their thinking. According to the site, during a post-election conference call with Democratic members of the House, Rep. Diane DeGette of Colorado suggested that it was time for the party to “rethink” their message since so many young voters abandoned them and voted for Republican Cory Gardner in her state. The response from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was instructive. She abruptly “cut her off.” Like President Obama, Pelosi doesn’t think the loss is cause for the party to rethink anything. That leaves us asking what will it take for Democrats to draw any conclusions from an election defeat?

Like President Obama, who seemed uninterested in drawing any conclusions from the midterms, Pelosi brushed off any talk about a GOP “wave” in an interview with Politico:

“I do not believe what happened the other night is a wave,” Pelosi said in her first sit-down interview since Democrats lost a dozen House seats to Republicans on Nov. 4. “There was no wave of approval for the Republicans. I wish them congratulations, they won the election, but there was no wave of approval for anybody. There was an ebbing, an ebb tide, for us.”

That’s been a consistent theme for Democrats who prefer to interpret the elections as the consequence of a failure to generate a big enough turnout from their base to win. Like President Obama, who said he would listen to those who voted as well as those who didn’t vote, Democrats have begun to treat midterms as somehow an illegitimate test of American public opinion as opposed to presidential elections where they do better.

There is a superficial logic to their thinking as the pattern of the last four federal elections has alternated Democratic presidential wins with Republican sweeps of the midterms. But rather than worrying that their inability to translate the popularity of Barack Obama into congressional majorities since their big win in 2008, Democrats have preferred to slip into a mentality that they are a presidential party rather than one that works in the midterms. Since Democrats take it as an article of faith that their policies are unquestionably right and that most voters understand this, they see no reason to change a thing about their approach. And as long as they can keep winning presidential elections, perhaps they can get away with this.

But, as Rep. DeGette seems to understand, politics never stands still. The assumption that Democrats will always bring out enough youth, minority, and female voters to offset any of their failings may not hold up indefinitely. Indeed, the 2014 midterms ought to be a wakeup call to Democrats reminding them that their dominance of these constituencies is not, unlike the government programs they believe in, a permanent entitlement. What happened this time was not just a decline in Democratic turnout but a sign that the Democrats’ favorite memes, such as the war on women, and their reliance on minority voters may be a trap. What worked in 2012 did not work this year everywhere. Even worse, their reliance on minority voters has caused them to slip into an acceptance of the idea that other groups are the preserve of Republicans. But, as much as Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic, surely Democrats don’t think they can keep winning the presidency by getting only a third of white males. That’s a gender gap that puts the GOP’s problems with women in perspective.

While the political terrain of 2016 will be more favorable to the Democrats than this year’s vote, the ability of Republicans to expand their map and put purple states that were thought to be turning blue into play should alarm the president’s party. They should also be drawing conclusions from the fact that when Republicans put up credible candidates in competitive states, they are winning or doing far better than expected. Smart politicians might conclude that the Democratic advantage in past votes has been as much a function of awful GOP candidates as anything else. But while some of what Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are saying now can be put down to political braggadocio, there seems little doubt that they mean it when they say they think there’s no reason to change anything.

To her credit, the one Democrat that seems to be thinking seriously about what happened is Democratic National Committee chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. While Wasserman Schultz is equally convinced that Democrats are right on the issue, she is at least open to the possibility that the way they’ve been selling themselves to the voters has been a mistake. She is convening a committee to study the midterms that is tasked with presenting a report early next year. If they’re smart, Democrats will use this as an opportunity to rethink a great deal of what they’ve been doing. But since DWS has been marginalized by the White House and is not liked by much of the party’s congressional leadership, the odds that anything she produces will be heard, let alone accepted, are not good. Indeed, rather than accept that dislike of his policies is the problem, Obama may decide to make the DNC chair the scapegoat for the loss.

The contrast between the Republican responses to their election defeats couldn’t be greater. In the aftermath of the 2012 elections, the party underwent a collective soul searching experience that is still resonating in debates about immigration reform and other issues. Though there isn’t complete consensus about what to do, the party’s concern for recruiting good candidates and seeking to stop bad ones from gaining nominations was a start.

But Democrats don’t seem much in the mood for a similar round of introspection. Instead, they prefer to wait until 2016 when they are confident that Hillary Clinton will lead them to victory. That is a possibility. But a smarter party or one that was actually interested in ideas might consider that the loss of so many congressional seats, governors, and state legislative chambers should motivate them to do some soul searching.

It will take a presidential defeat in 2016 to force Democrats to undergo the kind of self-examination that Republicans are struggling with. But if they do, the debris from the decline for the party that Barack Obama’s unpopularity has wrought may take them more than one election cycle to fix. Nothing in politics is permanent, but there is a price that must be paid for ignoring election results. Whether they like it or not, that is one lesson Democrats may eventually learn.

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Midterms Were About Something: An Anti-Obama Wave

For months we were told that this was the “Seinfeld election”—a race about nothing. And most pundits also seemed to think that despite the clearly favorable terrain for Republicans in the Senate, this would not be a wave election along the lines of the big Democratic victory of 2006 and the GOP landslide of 2010. Both assumptions were wrong. The 2014 midterms were most definitely about something and that something was dissatisfaction with President Obama that created yet another historic wave.

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For months we were told that this was the “Seinfeld election”—a race about nothing. And most pundits also seemed to think that despite the clearly favorable terrain for Republicans in the Senate, this would not be a wave election along the lines of the big Democratic victory of 2006 and the GOP landslide of 2010. Both assumptions were wrong. The 2014 midterms were most definitely about something and that something was dissatisfaction with President Obama that created yet another historic wave.

By the time the dust settles after the Louisiana Senate runoff, it’s likely the Republicans will have won a 54-seat Senate majority, increased their stranglehold in the House to a level unseen since before World War Two, and picked up several governorships, including some in deep blue states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland.

This was a surprise for a number of reasons, chief of which was that the polls were mostly wrong. Last week I wrote about the complaints of liberals that polls showing the election as a virtual tie were skewed in favor of the Republicans because they were undercounting Hispanics and other minorities. But in fact, as political stat guru Nate Silver points out on his FiveThirtyEight blog, the polls actually had a pro-Democrat bias ranging from 4 to 12 points in states around the country.

But once we set aside the arguments about how and why the predictions were off, three things must be acknowledged:

1. There should be no doubt that this election must be considered a wave election in very much the same category as 2006 and 2010.

2. The reason for the wave was a broad dissatisfaction with President Obama.

3. The size and scope of the GOP victory and the failure of the Democrats to replicate the Obama coalitions that won in 2008 and 2012 should shake their confidence that it can be easily reconstructed in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.

The reason why so many people doubted it would be a wave had to do with the fact that congressional Republicans had negative favorability ratings that were even worse than the terrible poll numbers given President Obama. But those who assumed that these two factors would, at best, cancel each other out forgot that it’s the president who runs the country and must bear the responsibility for government dysfunction, not a divided Congress.

Examining the state-by-state results, we see almost across the board that Democrats underperformed when compared to 2012. Races that were supposed to be neck and neck like those in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, and Georgia all turned out to be a near or actual GOP landslide. They will try to put this down to the problems of getting their voters out for a midterm but this underestimates their problems.

The president won in 2012 with better than 50 percent of the vote. But with his popularity ratings down to approximately 40 percent, the only way to understand the results is to realize that approximately one in five of his past supporters were so disillusioned with his performance and either stayed home on Tuesday or voted for Republicans. This happened in spite of the Democrats’ vaunted ground game that was supposed to compensate for the drawbacks of a second term president’s doldrums and add two to three points to their totals.

While it is true that overall turnout was down when compared to the last presidential election, in many states, the number of African-Americans who voted met the Democrats’ expectations. If young people, women, and Hispanics didn’t follow suit, it’s not just because the midterms are better suited to Republicans but because the leader of the Democratic Party has largely lost the faith of many of those who swept him to office on a near-messianic hope and change campaign. Though the New York Times is already telling us that the president is merely irritated with the results and doesn’t regard it as a repudiation of his presidency, that is the only reasonable conclusion to draw from this election.

Finally, the extent of the Republican victory debunks the Democrats’ pre-election sour grapes arguments that contended that even a loss in 2014 wouldn’t impact their ability to win again in the next presidential year in 2016.

It is true that Democrats have excelled in presidential years when compared to midterms in the last two such cycles. But those Democratic waves in 2008 and 2012 were mostly the function of the historic candidacies of Obama and not necessarily a reflection of the party’s appeal when he wasn’t on the ballot.

The ability of Republicans to be competitive and to even win governorships in blue states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and purple states like Wisconsin also shows that the GOP ground game has caught up to that of the Democrats. This also undermines assumptions that Republicans don’t have the ability to expand their map in 2016 with the right candidate at the top of their ticket.

So long as the president remained popular it was possible for Democrats to assume that demography would determined the destiny of future elections. But unhappiness with Obama cut the legs out of the president’s coalition and sent a message that his putative Democratic successor shouldn’t be confident about replicating his 2012 numbers when she runs for president. In that sense, this year’s anti-Obama wave shakes the foundation of the liberal media’s conventional wisdom about the political balance of power. Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to both help or hurt their cause in the next two years based on their performance in Congress. But heading into the 2016 campaign — which starts now — a midterm election that was both a wave and very much about something shows that the supposedly permanent Democratic advantage in national elections may already have started to disappear.

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Midterm Sour Grapes, Tea Party Edition

Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

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Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

Let’s concede that Erickson and other Tea Partiers are not crazy to be suspicious about the Republican leadership. They remember what happened the last time the GOP had control of both houses of Congress. The reason there is a Tea Party movement is due to the fact that during the George W. Bush administration, the party was rightly perceived to have embraced a tax-and-spend mentality that helped dig the country a hole that it has not yet climbed out of. The pointless discussions about who is a RINO (Republican in name only) inevitably descend into tests of purity whose aim is to demonstrate which conservatives are holier than anyone else. Yet the question of who is a big-government Republican is a serious one that should influence the new freshman class of Senators and Representatives to avoid the mistakes made during the reign of error presided over by former Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

But Erickson’s animus seems not to be so much focused on whether the next Republican majority will avoid the temptations of big government and resume spending like drunken sailors as it is on those that sought to avoid the kind of disasters that cost the party golden opportunities to win the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Erickson is still angry with national Republican political consultants such as Karl Rove and people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who worked hard to recruit Senate candidates based on whether they could win rather than on their conservative purity. The result was that Tea Party insurgents in states like Kansas and Mississippi were defeated and establishment Republicans won.

Not all of these decisions were wise. Certainly, the GOP must look back at the effort to ensure that Pat Roberts was given the party’s Senate nomination rather than a Tea Party rebel with some mixed feelings. Roberts is the poster child for out-of-touch incumbents who richly deserve to be retired rather than given a ticket for another six years in Washington. If Roberts loses his Kansas seat today—especially if the GOP falls one seat short of a majority—Tea Partiers will never let the establishment live that one down. Conservatives also still have hard feelings over the way the party leadership went all-out to save incumbent Thad Cochran in Mississippi even though he is another senator that grew roots in D.C. and replacing him as a nominee would not have cost the party the seat.

Erickson also takes a shot at Thom Tillis in North Carolina and David Perdue in Georgia. Both are not incumbents but still represent an establishment mentality that provides voters with unattractive choices rather than a fresh and principled conservative alternative.

This critique is consistent with the theme we’ve heard from many conservatives about the pitfalls of Republicans nominating so-called moderates for president like John McCain or Mitt Romney. This thesis holds that the party alienates its base and creates millions of missing Republican voters by putting forward certain losers without the passion of true conservatives. To that indictment, Erickson adds that this is largely the fault of consultants who profit handsomely from such losses.

There is something to be said for the argument that merely nominating respectable losers does nothing to advance the conservative cause or to stop the growth of the big-government monster that is devouring the U.S. economy and stealing more of our individual freedom every year. But the idea that the only choice before the GOP is between nominating fat cat losers and principled conservative winners is, like the straw men that President Obama likes to use as his favorite rhetorical device, a false choice. What Republicans need is not so much Tea Party fervor as it is political skill.

What Hastert and the K Street caucus that profited from past Republican majorities taught us is that Republicans need to be about more than just attempts to buy votes with government pork. But in 2010 and 2012, the right also taught it that putting forward candidates who can’t win the support of a majority of voters isn’t too smart either. Without the Tea Party insisting on nominating Sharron Angle for a Nevada race, Harry Reid would have been defeated in 2010. Nor should anyone on the right forget that putting forward Christine O’Donnell rather than a respectable GOP moderate ensured that the Democrats would win a seat in Delaware that they are likely to hold for a long time. The disdain for national leaders attempting to vet Senate candidates also seems absurd given what happened in Missouri when Rep. Todd Akin (an extreme social conservative rather than a Tea Partier) not only threw away a certain defeat of Democrat Claire McCaskill but also tarnished the Republican brand around the nation with his idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy.

These lessons should be remembered even when we look at what seem like reasonable criticisms of the establishment by Erickson. While re-nominating Roberts and even Cochran may be classified as unforced errors, what he’s leaving out of the discussion is the very real possibility that loose cannons such as Milton Wolf and Chris McDaniel might have sunk the party. In particular, it can be argued that keeping McDaniel, a former radio talker with a paper trail of wild comments a mile long, out of the general election might have been the smartest thing the GOP did all year since he might have been the 2014 version of Akin.

The question of what Republicans do with their majority if they win it is something we’ll find out in 2015. But you can’t govern without winning elections and that is something the Tea Party hasn’t always mastered. Too often, some of them seem more interested in fighting and destroying their slightly less conservative party opponents than in beating Democrats and then governing. Sour grapes from Tea Partiers about “hollow victories” strikes me as being just as absurd as the excuses already put forward by Democrats about why they are losing this election. If Rove, McConnell, and Co. have stopped them from blowing up another chance for a Republican majority, that is something that even the most dedicated conservatives should be celebrating tonight.

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GOP Senate Means Obama Owns Gridlock

One of the key Democratic talking points in the waning days of their midterm campaign is to predict even worse gridlock in the next two years if the Republicans win the Senate. Given the unbridgeable differences that already exist between President Obama and the House Republican leadership, it’s hard to imagine the administration’s relationship with the GOP getting any better if the Senate is in the hands of his foes too. That’s why liberals are consoling themselves about tomorrow’s likely loss by predicting that the standoff in 2015 will, like the one in 2013, help their party and hurt Republicans. But that assessment of any future confrontation rests on the assumption that the same rules that applied before will determine the outcome of the next battle. Politicians and pundits need to take into account that this may not be the case.

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One of the key Democratic talking points in the waning days of their midterm campaign is to predict even worse gridlock in the next two years if the Republicans win the Senate. Given the unbridgeable differences that already exist between President Obama and the House Republican leadership, it’s hard to imagine the administration’s relationship with the GOP getting any better if the Senate is in the hands of his foes too. That’s why liberals are consoling themselves about tomorrow’s likely loss by predicting that the standoff in 2015 will, like the one in 2013, help their party and hurt Republicans. But that assessment of any future confrontation rests on the assumption that the same rules that applied before will determine the outcome of the next battle. Politicians and pundits need to take into account that this may not be the case.

Let’s concede that some of the key elements of the bruising conflict between Obama and the Republicans in the last two years with a split Congress will still be in place even if both houses are run by the GOP next January.

Even as a wounded and very lame duck, the president will remain a formidable political opponent. Though his personal appeal seems to have reached its expiration date, he’s still a unique historical figure with the ability to command the attention and the support of many Americans. Moreover, the Democrats’ ace in the hole—a mainstream media that is firmly in the pocket of the president no matter how poor his performance or what manner of scandal is brewing—is still there to help spin anything that happens as the GOP’s fault and to buy into Obama’s specious pose as the adult in the negotiating room.

That’s why many people, including some Republicans, fear that a Republican-controlled Senate will only set up the party for a new round of defeats in the court of public opinion once the president demonstrates, as our Seth Mandel speculated earlier today, that he is incapable of rethinking or rebooting his approach to governance. The assumption is that the president’s unwillingness to compromise—which is equally as intransigent as that of the most hardcore Tea Party caucus members—will allow his media cheerleaders to interpret the standoff as proof that the GOP doesn’t want to govern. That will allow Hillary Clinton to run against a “do-nothing” Congress and lead inevitably to a Democratic wave in 2016 that will erase the Republican majorities that will already be in danger due to the large number of GOP incumbents who will be hard-pressed to repeat their 2010 upsets.

That’s a frightening prospect for Republicans even as they contemplate what may be a very good day tomorrow. But Democrats need to remember one pertinent fact before they start spinning the results.

If Republicans control both houses of Congress, that will give them more than their current ability to frustrate the designs of the president and his allies in the Senate. Majorities on both sides of the Hill will enable them to actually pass bills on key issues. If they do–and given the stark divisions in the House as well as in the Senate GOP caucus, that is not a given–that will put the ball in the president’s court as he will then be forced to sign or veto legislation.

Will a veto standoff play the same way as the current formula for gridlock? Democrats hope so, but there is a big difference between a president being able to lambast Congress for not “doing its job” and passing bills and one that is presented with the verdict of the legislature but will not sign. The power to veto is an effective weapon but it is not quite the same thing as being able to point your finger at a House of Representatives that can’t get out of its own way and even pass something its leader wanted.

Republicans face formidable challenges once they are in charge of both houses, though most of these will come from within. But what liberal pundits and even some conservatives forget is that the dynamic next year will be a lot different from the past. Obama is weak and getting weaker in terms of the political capital he has to spend every month. A Congress that puts him on the defensive by passing its own agenda will potentially be offering the nation a coherent alternative to liberal patent nostrums. On a host of issues, including energy, education, and immigration, if Obama’s only answer to Republican bills is to say no, it won’t be as easy for him to say that it’s all the fault of the other side. He’s the one will be saying “no,” not Speaker John Boehner or even the Tea Party. That’s even more more pertinent if he is also seeking to institute one-man rule via executive orders so as to prevent Congress from having its say.

All of which means that the stakes tomorrow are a lot higher than many on the left are willing to concede. A GOP Senate presents the party with an opportunity to not only make Barack Obama’s last two years in office miserable but also to lay the foundation for a strong 2016 effort. As much as it is tempting for Democrats to say they win by losing, the truth is, they have far more to lose in the midterms than they are letting on.

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Race-Baiting and the Democrats’ Future

With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

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With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

The answer from Democratic operatives eager to preserve the party’s Senate majority as well as to lay the foundation for another smashing presidential win in 2016 would probably be something along the lines of declaring that all’s fair in love, war, and politics. If getting African-Americans to the polls requires cynically recycling racial incitement, then so be it. Moreover they see it as no more nor less ethical than Republican hacks employing concerns over issues like gay marriage or immigration in order to get their base to turn out.

But just as Republicans have learned the lesson in recent election cycles that excessive pandering to social conservatives has unforeseen consequences in the form of damaging blowback with moderates and independents, so, too, Democrats need to be wary of becoming the party of race incitement.

Waving the bloody shirt of Ferguson seems like a good idea to those who believe, not wrongly, that many African-Americans view such incidents as evidence of the enduring legacy of the nation’s history of racism. But the line between sending subtle hints about such issues and outright race baiting has clearly been crossed when, as Hagan did, Republicans are falsely accused of playing a role in killing young African-Americans. Nor did Landrieu do herself any favors by publicly complaining about the treatment of blacks and women in the contemporary south.

Both parties desperately need their bases to be enthusiastic about elections if they are to win. But both also need to remember that winning electoral majorities requires more than mobilization of true believers. Republicans have become obsessed with appeasing their core voters and paid for it at times by being slammed, often unfairly, as overly identified with extremists. But it seems never to occur to Democrats that over-the-top appeals to their base will exact a cost with the rest of the electorate.

In the past two years, we’ve heard a great deal of Democratic triumphalism about how changing demographics will ensure them an unshakable electoral majority for years, if not decades, to come. But as much as they certainly benefit heavily from the overwhelming margins they rack up among blacks and Hispanics, the notion that this alone will create a permanent Democratic hegemony in Washington is spurious. In the end, all parties must win over the vital center of the American public square. As Ronald Reagan proved, they need not sacrifice their ideology or their principles to do so. But when they go too far, they inevitably run aground.

That’s the real danger of a reliance on race baiting for the Democrats. It’s not just that African-Americans will grow tired of such obvious exploitation but that by linking themselves so firmly with such dubious tactics and extreme rhetoric, they drown out any reasoned arguments they might put forward for their party.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats were able to rouse their base with positive messages of empowerment that revolved around the historic and deeply symbolic candidacies of Barack Obama while at the same time offering an effective if ultimately spurious promise of hope and change to the entire country. But in 2014, as Obama’s popularity has waned and then collapsed, they are forced to do verbal gymnastics as candidates seek to distance themselves from the president and his policies while simultaneously seeking to appeal to minorities that still revere him with negative race-based slurs about Republicans.

Thus, even if these tactics work to turn out blacks—and it is by no means clear that it will come anywhere close to the 2012 levels that Democrats desperately need—the party may be doing itself real damage with the public in ways that will harm their presidential candidate in 2016. As with other misleading memes they have beat to death, such as the spurious war on women that Republicans are supposed to be waging, Democrats are finding that they are fast exhausting the electorate’s patience and are running out of ideas. As much as playing the race card seems like a foolproof if unsavory tactic, it may not be as smart a move as they think it is.

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Jeb Can’t Win By Running Against the Base

Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?

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Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?

The conventional wisdom in the mainstream liberal media about the Republican Party is that it has been abducted by its right wing and has no hope of winning another presidential election until it learns to win back the hearts of women and the growing number of Hispanic voters. While much of the overheated rhetoric heard from liberals about the Tea Party is both inaccurate and unfair, there is some truth to this argument.

No political party can win by only appealing to the most extreme elements of its base. Nor can the GOP hope to prevail by deliberately snubbing those elements of the electorate that it lost badly in 2012. Bush is probably the most appealing of all the possible Republican centrists who could run and has as good, if not better, chance to appeal to the independent voters as any candidate. It should also be pointed out that in spite of the conservative cast of the party, in the last two election cycles the GOP has nominated the most moderate of the major contenders.

The primary obstacle to a Bush candidacy has also collapsed as President Obama’s disastrous second term has helped burnish the memory of his predecessor. The Bush name may still be a punch line on the left but George W. Bush’s noble demeanor after leaving office and the catastrophes in the Middle East that have unfolded on Obama’s watch have taken the sting out of the Bush legacy.

There is also a belief that Bush will stand out as a reasoned voice in a 2016 GOP field that may be dominated by more hard-line conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or a libertarian like Senator Rand Paul. In theory, that should set up Jeb for the same kind of run to the nomination that enabled John McCain to win in 2008 and Mitt Romney to play in 2012.

But there are some obvious obstacles that must be overcome before the Bush clan and their supporters starts planning their move back to the White House. Despite the rush in the media to anoint him as the Republican front-runner in a race that will start to take shape next summer, Jeb Bush cannot win the nomination, let alone the presidency, by running against his party’s base.

Let’s understand that although Bush has a well-earned reputation as a good governor and a serious thinker about policy issues, no one should assume that most Republicans are all that eager to put a Bush on their national ticket for the seventh time in the last ten presidential elections. Though Republicans have tended in the past to like familiar names, it is the Democrats who are more deferential these days to existing dynasties as the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton shows. The 2016 race looks to be the most wide-open GOP race in several decades and many in the party not only agree with Barbara Bush that the country needs some fresh names, not recycled dynasties. With Hillary Clinton as their opponent, Republicans will be better off providing a fresh alternative to an attempt to gain revenge for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 defeat at the hands of her husband.

Far more troubling for Bush is his seeming determination to win not by winning over conservatives but by flaunting his disagreements on key issues.

To note the gap between Bush’s positions on issues like immigration and the Common Core education and possible tax increases is not the same thing as agreeing with all of his critics. Bush’s instincts on immigration are correct and the GOP would do well not to heed those in the conservative camp who believe that the growth of the Hispanic population is somehow a negative thing for the country irrespective of how we change the immigration laws. Common Core is a complicated issue on which smart people differ and others would do well not to try and demonize those on either side. And even when it comes to theoretical debates about raising taxes, Bush’s refusal to give an ironclad pledge can easily be defended, as our Pete Wehner did here last week.

But Bush’s complaints about the rightward trend of the party bodes ill for his efforts to win over the same conservatives that he is going to need to win both the nomination and the general election. It should be remembered that while both McCain and Romney won the nomination contest as the leading moderates in a field populated by conservatives, they did so by seeking to bridge the gap with the right, not smacking it down as Bush sometimes seems to want to do.

The complaints from some on the right that McCain and Romney lost because they were insufficiently conservative are bunk. Both probably did as well, if not better than possible Republican opponent of Barack Obama. But they’re not wrong when they note that no GOP candidate can win without an enthusiastic base or by disdaining their concerns.

Bush’s qualifications are second to none. But the current polls that put him at the head of a field of possible candidates is based purely on name recognition. If Jeb Bush wants to be the face of the Republican Party in 2016, he must forge a new winning coalition that must include those who disagree with him. If he can’t, no matter how many leading establishment donors embrace him, there will be no third President Bush.

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Dems’ Texas Fantasies Don’t Add Up

Triumphalism comes naturally to liberals since they tend to conceive of history as the story of the inevitable triumph of progressive ideas over reactionary conservatism. But while those hopes have often been short-circuited since Americans realize that some of what falls under the progressive rubric is counter-productive to the cause of liberty, this mindset is influencing commentary about the future of Texas. Although the Lone Star State is deep red now, Democrats are sure this is about to change thanks to demographics. But those counting on Texas turning blue shouldn’t be holding their breath.

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Triumphalism comes naturally to liberals since they tend to conceive of history as the story of the inevitable triumph of progressive ideas over reactionary conservatism. But while those hopes have often been short-circuited since Americans realize that some of what falls under the progressive rubric is counter-productive to the cause of liberty, this mindset is influencing commentary about the future of Texas. Although the Lone Star State is deep red now, Democrats are sure this is about to change thanks to demographics. But those counting on Texas turning blue shouldn’t be holding their breath.

In today’s New York Times, we get a new version of Democratic optimism with an op-ed by liberal author Richard Parker who asserts that it’s not just the growing number of Hispanics that will transform Texas politics. According to Parker, the shift in the political balance of power has as much to do with the increasing influence of cities as it does to ethnicity. He argues that the growing dominance of urban voters will play just as decisive a role in bringing the Democrats back to power in Austin. He thinks the ability of President Obama to win all of Texas’s big urban counties and cities in 2012 should interest us just as much as the fact that a majority of Texans will likely be of Hispanic origin in 10-20 years. Since even in Texas people who live in cities tend to be more liberal on both economics and social issues, it stands to reason that the growth of these cities heralds the inevitable end of the GOP stranglehold on Texas politics. This leads him to think that not only does Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis—a national favorite of liberals but a heavy underdog in Texas—have a shot at winning this year but that she or a successor is likely to be victorious four years from now.

But like the assumptions about Hispanics paving the way for Texas turning purple, if not blue, this thesis may not be correct.

Ironically on the same day that Parker’s essay appeared, Politico published a piece by conservative author Wayne Thorburn that argues that liberal triumphalism about Texas is mostly wishful thinking.

Thorburn doesn’t dispute that the number of Hispanics is going up from the 37.6 percent of Texas residents reported by the 2010 census. But he points out that a lot of the assumptions about Texas Hispanics are not backed up by the facts.

The first big problem for Democrats is that a sizable percentage of the 10 million Texans classified as Hispanic are not eligible to vote. Parker writes that one million of them are “undocumented non-citizens”—a politically correct way of saying they are illegal immigrants. A large number of other Hispanics are either green card holders who may eventually become citizens or those who hold student visas. Of those who are entitled to vote, only 38.8 percent are registered as opposed to more than 61 percent of the white population.

If that doesn’t sober up Democrats, they should also take into account the fact that Texas Hispanics are less likely to vote for Democrats than those living in deep-blue states like California or New York. Mitt Romney may have only gotten 27 percent of the national Hispanic vote in 2012 but he got approximately ten percent more in Texas. Urban voters may be more likely to be more liberal on social issues but Hispanics, especially those in Texas, appear to be socially conservative and that has helped the GOP hold onto a bigger share of their vote than elsewhere.

All these factors should enable Republicans to go on winning in Texas even if their margins may be diminished.

But the main point here isn’t just about Hispanic voters. It’s that all formulas that assume that voters will behave in exactly the way they have previously are inherently suspect.

Liberals like Parker assume that being urban means being liberal just as others assume Hispanic identity means a vote for the Democrats. Those assumptions are based on past experience and are therefore sound. But what he and anyone else who makes blanket assumptions about Texas or any other state must take into account is the fact that candidates, parties, and ideas still matter more than ethnicity or where you live.

After all, Texas was once part of the solid Democratic south. It changed not because of any demographic shift but because the Democrats’ shift to the left in the 1960s and ’70s rendered them vulnerable to a GOP that had become more identified with support of a strong national defense and hostility to big government than their rivals. That’s why Ronald Reagan swept Texas and it’s the same reason why a Republican Hispanic by the name of Ted Cruz won election to the U.S. Senate there in a landslide (including 40 percent of the Hispanic vote) in 2012.

It is possible that Democrats could pull some future upsets if they nominate candidates who are more conservative than their national party. But the rise of Wendy Davis to national prominence on the back of her abortion filibuster in the state legislature illustrates the conundrum at the heart of Parker’s assumptions. Davis is exactly the kind of candidate who is likely to engender enthusiasm in liberal urban centers like Austin. But amid a multitude of problems that have plagued her gubernatorial run is the fact that she has little appeal to a Hispanic population that doesn’t view abortion as favorably as other Democrats. Nor is there any reason to assume that Hispanic Democrats like the Castro brothers are going to have the traction to flip moderate swing voters.

Demographic determinism may be heady stuff for political scientists but in real life politics isn’t science. Until Democrats learn that lesson and start trying to appeal to conservatives, their Texas scenarios will remain fantasies.

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Santorum and the Myths About 2012

If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

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If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

Almost everyone outside of his inner circle thought Santorum’s candidacy was pure folly heading into the 2012 cycle. But a combination of hard work beating the bushes in Iowa and the fact that he was the one true social conservative in the race enabled Santorum to emerge as the chief challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney. Though Romney’s ultimate victory was never in doubt, Santorum won a dozen primaries and caucuses and earned the right to call himself the second-place finisher. Though politics isn’t horseshoes, coming close did help Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Romney get the nomination the next time out after similar failures.

But this “rule” about runners up won’t apply this time. Unfortunately for Santorum, politics isn’t a quilt pattern. The prospective Republican field is very difference than it was four years ago, and that will dictate very different results.

First of all, there is no true front-runner as there usually is for GOP races. Indeed, the closest thing to a leading candidate once New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was laid low by Bridgegate is Senator Rand Paul. But renewed fears about terrorism mean that Paul is going to have a hard time expanding his appeal significantly beyond his libertarian base. No one, including Santorum, will be able to head into the first contests playing off the base’s resentment of the eventual candidate since no one will be in that role.

Second, though Republicans will have their share of outliers like Dr. Ben Carson, the lineup in their debates could include some genuine heavy hitters. A roster that could include the likes of Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Christie, Rick Perry (back for his own second go at the presidency), Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and maybe even Paul Ryan or Jeb Bush will leave less room for a dark horse like Santorum to squeeze through to the front of the pack.

Santorum does have on thing that his potential rivals don’t possess: The ability to play to working-class voters. Santorum was right when he criticized the 2012 Republican National Convention for its emphasis on small business owners with its attempt to counter President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe to the exclusion of those who work for them. But though Santorum brings plenty of substance to the table on economics, social issues, and foreign policy (raising the alarm about the Iranian nuclear threat was a key issue for him during his disastrous 2006 race for reelection to his Pennsylvania Senate seat), it’s far from clear the formula that worked for a time for him last time will do the trick against opponents who don’t fit as neatly into the establishment category as Romney or even New Gingrich did in 2012.

But the discussion of Santorum’s potential candidacy should also cause Republicans to rethink some other myths about their last go round.

One is the idea that Santorum’s challenge was somehow to blame for Romney’s defeat in November.

It is true that it would have been easier on Romney and saved him a great deal of money that he could have employed against Obama had Santorum quit in February rather than pushing on for another couple of months. But it should be recalled that although John McCain’s chief opponents (the most prominent of which was Romney himself) did him that favor in 2008, it didn’t help him win the general election. The same could be said of the 2012 GOP nominee. Even if his grass-roots critics had shut up about his shortcomings sooner and given him an easy glide to the nomination, he was never going to beat Obama. Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate and the enduring, if puzzling, popularity of Barack Obama beat him, not Santorum.

The other prominent 2012 myth among Republicans is the idea that the nomination of a relative moderate depressed the base so much that millions of conservatives stayed home in November ensuring a Democratic victory. That’s a theme that will be sounded by conservatives in the 2016 primaries but there’s little proof that “silent majorities” of right-wingers stayed home in the fall. But unless the GOP establishment coalesces behind a resurgent but still damaged Christie or Jeb Bush decides to run or, as some hope, Romney tries again, there will be little for the base to complain about in a race that will largely be a competition between conservatives.

Santorum’s 2012 achievements should mean that his ambitions deserve more respect from pundits than he’s currently getting. But he is, if anything, an even bigger underdog today than he was four years ago. The bottom line is that in politics there are no real precedents. Nor will rules seeking to end the race earlier than it did last time necessarily work or help the nominee win in November. The coming free-for-all will be played by a different cast and produce different results with the one exception being that it is unlikely to end in a Santorum triumph.

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Dem Senate Comeback May Be Fool’s Gold

Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

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Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

The need to frame the midterms in terms of a wave is understandable. Journalists love a story that they can wrap up in a neat unifying package that explains everything. That’s why so many political pundits are so eager to try to interpret any national election—even a congressional midterm which is really dozens if not hundreds of separate races piled together—through a single lens. The problem is that even when such elections produce a big victory for either party, the reason for all these results often is more the product of a host of local factors rather than a national tide sweeping the nation.

That’s an important lesson for pundits to remember in 2014. Within the last couple of days, the New York Times’s Upshot, the Washington Post’s The Fix, and Nate Silver’s Five-Thirty-Eight all reversed their previous findings showing the GOP as the big favorite to take the Senate and now say it is a tossup. They didn’t agree as to the reason for this momentum swing. Silver believes the decisive factor is a Democratic edge in campaign fundraising with liberal and Democratic Super PACs outspending conservative and Republican ones. He may be right about that. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, Democrats are using their considerable resources, with the aid of their reliable cheering section in the mainstream press, to paint GOP opponents as either extremists (as they are trying to do to Joni Ernst in Iowa) or sexist fools (as they seem to have done with Thom Tillis in North Carolina who is still dealing with the “mansplaining” charge lodged against him).

Moreover, the more you break down the 2014 races, the more apparent that national trends can be irrelevant to Senate races. That’s certainly true in deep-red Kansas where incumbent GOP Senator Pat Roberts finds himself in deep trouble because he is considered out of touch with a state that he doesn’t live in much anymore. The willingness of his Democratic opponent to pull out of the state in favor of a Democrat-leaning independent has transformed Kansas from a GOP lock to a possible loss.

Indeed, as much as money, political pragmatism seems to be the best weapon in the Democrat arsenal this year. Wherever Democrats are doing better or holding their own, it is largely because they are seeking to distance themselves from both President Obama and the national Democratic Party. Both North Carolina incumbent Kay Hagan and Georgia challenger Michelle Nunn have been adept in fleeing the president’s embrace. Viewed in isolation, these races not only confound any thought of a Republican midterm wave but also remind us that elections are principally decided on the basis of the ability of the candidates more than the party labels they wear.

But even if we concede that the last week has provided a great deal of comfort for Democrats, they shouldn’t get too cocky. As the party in charge of the White House, they are still laboring under tremendous disadvantages this fall that provide their GOP opponents with a safety net that could cushion the impact of any surge in Democrat fundraising as a result of these new more favorable predictions. National surveys, such as the latest New York Times/CBS Poll, show President Obama’s job approval ratings still heading south. Just as important, Republicans are gaining crucial advantages with the public on the economy, foreign policy, terrorism, and immigration.

While those who would extrapolate from these numbers the seeds of a genuine Republican wave are probably exaggerating the impact of national polls on local races, the Democrats are still dealing with some very unfavorable electoral math. In order to hold the Senate, they need to take one or two Republican seats (Kansas and Georgia representing their best chances), preserve the seats of one or two of their endangered red-state incumbents (North Carolina’s Hagan being their best chance of that), win some of the tossup states like Iowa, while also avoiding losing any of the seats that they thought were not endangered like that of New Hampshire’s Jean Shaheen.

Is that doable? Yes. Is it likely? The answer here is still no.

As much as the outlook has brightened for Democrats, Stuart Rothenberg’s prediction last week that Republicans will win at least 7 seats and possible more is still the more reasonable conclusion about an electoral map and a national political atmosphere that is heavily slanted toward the GOP. Democrats may be able to stop the bleeding and stay competitive by constantly reminding voters that their name isn’t Barack Obama. But doing so also reminds the electorate why midterms trend against the party in power.

Even more to the point, unlike in the past when Republicans came up short in efforts to win back the Senate, this time they don’t appear to be burdened with a roster of terrible candidates. Weak incumbents like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Prior in Arkansas might have survived against equally weak challengers but they didn’t get that lucky. And strong GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire have put seats in play that many thought to be safe for the Democrats.

So while the pundits should forget about waves, the notion of a big Democrat comeback may be more a case of them finding fool’s gold than a real path to victory in November.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the End of the Isolationist Moment

Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

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Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

In recent weeks, Paul’s drift away from the views shared by his father and the legions of libertarian extremist supporters that he has inherited from him has escalated to the point where the senator has opened himself up to charges of flip-flopping.

Paul seemed to be riding the wave of revulsion against the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan last year when his filibuster helped make him the new darling of the GOP. While the senator has consistently maintained that he is a realist in the mode of James Baker rather than an isolationist, there was no doubt about his desire to pull back from engagement in the war on Islamist terror until recent developments made it obvious that such stands were not as popular as he thought.

For example, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in June he stated the case that “America shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq” and that there was, “no good case for U.S. intervention now.” But three months later, he’s singing a different tune. Last week in a TIME magazine article, he not only proclaimed that he “was not an isolationist” but went on to claim “if I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”

Paul’s apologists will, as is their job, attempt to spin the two pieces as somehow representing the same position. But for those of us who are not determined to rationalize every twist and turn that he must follow in his quest for the presidency, the contradiction is pretty obvious. Though he remains opposed to “nation building,” the Rand Paul of 2010, let alone 2013, would be scratching his head about his criticism of President Obama for “disengaging” in Iraq. Put it down to Paul putting his finger in the wind and rightly determining that sticking to his non-interventionist line after the ISIS beheading would be a problem for most conservatives.

All of which partly explains Cruz’s recent emphasis on his own, more mainstream foreign-policy views. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Cruz not only enunciated positions critical of Obama and in favor of a more muscular U.S. foreign and defense policy that is consistent with traditional GOP stands that Paul has opposed. He also made it clear that he thinks the distance between Paul and himself on that issue is significant enough to create a real opening for him in 2016.

While more marginal (at least in terms of their chances of winning the nomination) Republicans such as John Bolton and Rep. Peter King have stated that they would run if there was no clear advocate of a strong foreign policy in the field to oppose Paul, Cruz is thinking the same thing. Since there is not much to differentiate him from Paul on domestic issues, the Texan thinks his consistent support of Israel and position in favor of re-asserting American power in the world gives him the chance to assume the Reaganite mantle in Republican primaries.

Is he right?

Cruz has some clear strengths, but also liabilities. He is the hero of Tea Partiers who love his willingness to confront Democrats on every issue, to refuse to play by the rules of the old Senate game about going along in order to get along. But what Tea Party activists see as a commitment to principle, other Republicans view as a mad commitment to suicidal tactics like last year’s government shutdown. Cruz’s unwillingness to acknowledge that mistake makes him anathema to the GOP establishment as well as others who see him as a loose cannon. But his mainstream foreign-policy views could give him an opening with these sectors of the party, including major donors even if he must be considered, at best, as an extreme long shot.

But whether Cruz’s 2016 hopes are realistic or not isn’t the point of recent developments. What we’ve seen in the last few months is the crackup of the libertarian alliance that looked to have a decent chance to take over the Republican Party last year as war weariness and suspicion of the Obama administration seemed to turn the Republican worldview upside down. With Paul retreating from not only his father’s extremism but also from some of his own “realist” stands and Cruz leading a faction of the Tea Party into what he hopes will be a foreign-policy debate in which he will champion the cause of a strong stand in the Middle East, it appears the isolationist moment in American politics is over.

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Democrats Are All About Power

Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

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Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

In Kansas, Chad Taylor, the Democratic Senate candidate withdrew from the race. Taylor was trailing badly in the polls in a contest in which embattled Republican incumbent Pat Roberts faced his most significant competition from independent Greg Orman. This will clear the field for the former Republican turned Democrat turned independent to mount a serious challenge to Roberts who survived a tough primary fight in which his lack of a home in Kansas was a major issue.

In Alaska, something similar happened when Byron Mallott, the Democratic candidate for governor agreed to merge forces with independent Bill Walker in order to better compete against GOP incumbent Sean Parnell. The Democratic state central committee endorsed a new ticket on which Mallott will be their candidate for lieutenant governor under Walker, who dropped his membership in the Alaska Republican Party in order to facilitate this unusual marriage of convenience.

In both cases, regular liberal Democrats swallowed hard and bowed to their party’s best interests by endorsing a less ideological candidate. If that wasn’t enough, also in Alaska, incumbent Senator Mark Begich demonstrated his commitment to winning at all costs by running a television advertisement that falsely accused his GOP opponent, a former state attorney general, of responsibility for the freeing of a convict who subsequently murdered two senior citizens and raping their granddaughter. Protests from the outraged family of the victims forced Begich to take the ad off the air but his willingness to broadcast what Politico calls a “Willie Horton ad” in his quest for reelection amply illustrated a fight-to-the-death spirit that seems to be animating Democrats this year.

What’s going on?

What we’re observing in these races is the way Democrats have become a party solely devoted to power. Whereas Democrats were once even more fractious and as prone to ideological squabbles as Republicans, in recent years they have changed. The Obama era is one in which the party of Jefferson and Jackson has finally realized that the only way to enact their liberal big-government agenda is to win elections. In service to that cause they have embraced unprincipled opportunists like Charlie Crist in Florida, Orman in Kansas, and Walker in Alaska. Where liberals might have once preferred to fight centrist Democrats in a quest for purity, they understand the election of political chameleons fighting under their banner will do more to advance their cause than sticking with a principled liberal who will lose honorably.

This is in marked contrast to Republicans who have in recent years made a specialty of tearing each other apart in bitter and often pointless civil wars that have resulted in their losing Senate seats they might have won. Indeed, the whole point of the Tea Party is a reaction to the way the Republican Party seemed to lose its soul during the George W. Bush administration with GOP majorities in the House and the Senate spending like drunken sailors just like Democrats in a futile effort to win the loyalty of voters. Indeed, the ire of most Tea Partiers has always seemed to be mostly reserved for moderate Republicans—dubbed RINOs—whose defeat is considered a greater victory for true conservatism than unseating any Democrat. Purging the GOP of such heretics has been their goal and they have largely succeeded.

Contrary to the myth propagated by the liberal mainstream media, Republicans are, as a rule, no more extreme in their conservatism than the average Democrat officeholder is in their liberalism. But the Jacobin spirit demonstrated by the Tea Party—which initially represented a healthy revolt of the taxpayers against an establishment determined to ignore the wishes of the voters and feather their own nests—which has largely acted as if it is better to have a liberal win a congressional or Senate seat rather than a nominal non-conservative Republican, has done more than hurt the GOP’s electoral prospects in some cases. It has also given it the aura of a Robespierre-style junta determined to root out any ideological diversity or dissent. This fealty to principle at all costs can be more attractive in some ways than the cynicism of the Democrats. But it also seems to be rooted in an indifference to governance that ill befits any great party that seeks to rule rather than merely posture.

So while opportunistic turncoats like Crist as well as the shady maneuvers of Kansas and Alaska Democrats rightly disgust Republicans, they can also take a lesson from them. Winning isn’t the only thing in politics and dishonorable flip-flopping is a disgrace, but the only way to really stop liberal big government is to ensure that the advocates of those policies lose elections. The moral of the story is that it’s no good complaining about ObamaCare if your activists are actually doing more to elect Democrats than Republicans who might vote to repeal it.

Democrats have figured out that they are better off taking half a loaf than none at all. It remains to be seen if Republicans are mature enough to learn the same lesson before they throw away another chance to control Congress.

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Paul Ryan’s Way Forward

In his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea Representative Paul Ryan offers some candid assessments of his party and himself.

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In his new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea Representative Paul Ryan offers some candid assessments of his party and himself.

On the former, he writes about the lead up to the government shutdown in October 2013, which he believed would be a “calamity for our party.” Mr. Ryan explains why the strategy couldn’t work, including the fact that because the Affordable Care Act is an entitlement, shutting down the government wouldn’t defund or eliminate it.

“The strategy our colleagues had been promoting was flawed from beginning to end,” he writes. “It was a suicide mission. But a lot of members were more afraid of what would happen if they didn’t jump off the cliff… We couldn’t afford to take a hit like that again [referring to the 1995 government shutdown] – not for a strategy that had no hope of advancing our core principles.”

Chairman Ryan was right, but a group of House Republicans – urged on by Senator Ted Cruz in particular – held out for a shutdown. It came. No core principles were advanced. And the reputation of the GOP dropped to new lows.

As for Ryan himself, he admits that his past use of the phrase “makers and takers” – meant to describe in shorthand people who are and aren’t receiving government benefits – was a mistake.

What was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at eighteen years old, using the Social Security survivor’s benefits we got after my father’s death to go to college? My buddy John Ramsdell, who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

We’re just lumping people in this category without any regard for their personal stories, I thought. It sounds like we’re saying that people who are struggling are deadbeats, as if they haven’t made it already or aren’t trying hard enough. emphasis in the original]

A political memoir and policy book that’s both candid and self-reflective, and at times even self-critical: That alone makes it rare and worth reading. Yet the book is significant for other reasons, including this one: Ryan, a political and intellectual leader of the GOP, uses The Way Forward to help Republicans and conservatives recast their approach, at least just a bit.

Chairman Ryan’s purpose in writing the book, at least as I understand it, is to describe what government can do to advance a conservative vision of the good society. This involves more than simply cutting government — though Ryan, to his credit, has offered the most comprehensive and realistic plan of any Republican to re-limit government.

He wants to reform government in fundamental, structural ways, to move us away from centralized bureaucratic planning and control toward more competition and choice, greater efficiency and innovation. This needs to be done not for ideological reasons but for eminently practical ones: to improve the lives and increase the opportunities for Americans in every social and economic stratum.

Mr. Ryan, a man of impeccable conservative credentials, wants Republicans to focus not just on the size of government but its purposes. He wants the GOP to act in ways that refute rather than reinforce certain stereotypes. He understands, too, that the Republican Party has to do more than amp up the rhetoric in ways that bring true believers to their feet. Energizing base voters is a pre-condition for a party’s political success, but Republicans also need to persuade millions of people who are not now voting for them at the presidential level to do just that. “Preaching to the choir isn’t working,” is how he puts it, “and by the way, the choir is shrinking.”

How to expand the choir and add new voices to it; that is in part what The Way Forward attempts to do, and does quite well.

The Republican Party needs to be the party of the 21st century — the party of reform and modernization; of upward mobility and educational excellence; that rewards work and opposes corporate welfare; that cares for the weak and vulnerable while speaking for middle class concerns and to middle class aspirations. It needs to have a real agenda when it comes to health care, higher education, legal and illegal immigration and the long-term unemployed.

That’s one part of the equation; but there’s another part, too.

Political parties are also defined by tone and countenance, spirit and bearing, and by whether its most public figures come across as winsome or joyless, authentic or contrived, at ease with the world or raging against it. Right now the way many people see political parties in general, but the GOP in particular, as antipathetic, rigid, and out of touch.

Paul Ryan’s book, and Paul Ryan himself, are antidotes to those impressions. His fellow Republicans would be wise to once again follow his lead.

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Can the GOP Lower the Gender Gap?

Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus had a point when in an appearance on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, he pushed back at the story published by Politico in which the publication spun two webs that showed the GOP continuing to trail the Democrats among female voters as proof that it was “stuck in the past.” Though Priebus is right to note that the generally negative view of the Democrats held by women is nearly as bad as that of Republicans, there’s no denying that a gender gap exists. More to the point, there’s little use denying that it’s bound to get worse in 2016.

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Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus had a point when in an appearance on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, he pushed back at the story published by Politico in which the publication spun two webs that showed the GOP continuing to trail the Democrats among female voters as proof that it was “stuck in the past.” Though Priebus is right to note that the generally negative view of the Democrats held by women is nearly as bad as that of Republicans, there’s no denying that a gender gap exists. More to the point, there’s little use denying that it’s bound to get worse in 2016.

As Preibus noted, the internal polls conducted by two conservative PACs—Crossroads GPS and American Action Network—showed that 49 percent of women view Republicans negatively while 39 percent think the same of Democrats. That’s a clear gender gap and a big advantage for Democrats in any election. But the spin on the poll coming from Politico seemed to center on the notion that the GOP was hopelessly out of touch with most women who viewed them as insensitive to their issues. While carping about the characterization of his party, he acknowledged that the problem is serious and he also asserted that it was not insurmountable.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this situation.

The first is that although the Democrats’ charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women” is the lowest kind of specious partisan propaganda, it has worked. Though married women still support Republicans, the problem for the GOP is that the far more numerous unmarried women have bought into the Democrats’ tactics, especially in the Middle West and Northeast.

Why? Because many young, liberal women have accepted the notion that conservative positions on economic issues and the need for smaller government hurts them. Moreover, to a generation of women who have come to believe the unfettered right to abortion and free contraception from their employers is essential to their well being, GOP arguments are bound to fall flat.

The second is that if Hillary Clinton is, as is likely, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, nothing Preibus and the Republicans do is likely to narrow the gender gap.

So should the GOP give up? No. But its expectations must be tempered by a knowledge that the Democratic advantage with the mainstream media and in the world of popular culture are going to make it very hard to erase their deficit until they find national candidates who can appeal to more women.

The RNC’s proposed response to the problem makes sense. It advocates seeking to “neutralize” Democratic arguments about “fairness” by pointing out that the best way to deal with inequality is to reform liberal big government programs that encourage the dependency that hurts poor families and women. It also correctly advises that the only way for a pro-life party to deal with abortion is to acknowledge the disagreement and then move on to other issues and to rely on the fact that many women have concerns about abortion and that even most supporters of it don’t view it as a litmus test issue. Yet if a GOP consultant quoted by Politico is right to say that many women view Republicans as the “old, white, right, out of touch” party, then it is necessary for the GOP to put forward younger, diverse candidates who can appeal to more voters.

That’s easier said than done, but it’s also just as obvious that what Republicans need to do is to recruit more female candidates. That’s something the party has done better in recent years and it can cite successes such as New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers from Washington to prove it. But, as with the need to get more visible Hispanics on the GOP line, the need for more female GOP leaders must become a priority rather than an afterthought.

For all of the negative poll numbers about women voters, Republicans need not be afraid of waging a war of ideas against a Democratic Party that has staked its future on returning to the failed liberal patent nostrums of the 1960s. But, as Preibus rightly pointed out, it is not enough to have good ideas. You’ve got to take them to the voters and articulate them in a way that can be understood and supported. Politics is, above all, a test of personalities, and until the voters start associating the GOP more with the likes of Martinez, Ayotte, and Rogers than with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, they’re not likely to change their minds.

Which is why the impending lesson of 2016 ought to be concentrating the minds of Republicans on promoting conservative women to leadership positions in the years to come. Hillary Clinton’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket is such a powerful symbol that it is bound to offset most of the GOP’s efforts to make headway with women. Yet that makes it all the more important for a party that already has a gender gap to ensure that Republican women aren’t tokens or outliers but equal partners in promoting conservative ideas.

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Why We’re Still Obsessing About Romney

When Mitt Romney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that there was a “one in a million” shot that he would run again for president, the 2012 Republican nominee probably thought he was, once again, shooting down speculation about him considering a 2016 run. But by prefacing it with the words “circumstances can change,” Romney gave pundits enough to restart speculation about his intentions. Those claiming that Romney is reconsidering his plans are almost certainly wrong. But the reason why so many are talking about this tells us a lot more about the GOP’s problems than it does about Romney.

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When Mitt Romney told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that there was a “one in a million” shot that he would run again for president, the 2012 Republican nominee probably thought he was, once again, shooting down speculation about him considering a 2016 run. But by prefacing it with the words “circumstances can change,” Romney gave pundits enough to restart speculation about his intentions. Those claiming that Romney is reconsidering his plans are almost certainly wrong. But the reason why so many are talking about this tells us a lot more about the GOP’s problems than it does about Romney.

That even a savvy political junkie like Chuck Todd would bite on this story and say on MSNBC’s Morning Rundown show today that Romney’s statement “opens the door a crack” to a 2016 run illustrates a few things.

The first is that once the Democratic attack machine that spent a solid year sliming Romney shut down it was possible for a lot of people to start noticing that Romney was not the cartoon villain his opponents claimed him to be. His decency, good humor, and competency look even better because of the ongoing disaster that Barack Obama’s second term has been. After a year and a half of ineptitude, scandals, and foreign-policy disasters, the national buyer’s remorse about giving Obama another four years has softened Romney’s image and given him a legitimacy that the president’s cheering section in the mainstream media denied him when he was a candidate.

But it must also be admitted that one of the reasons so many people continue to try and raise Romney’s name is that none of the likely Republican contenders for 2016 have yet eclipsed the 2012 nomine.

Bridgegate derailed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2016 juggernaut. Senator Marco Rubio, who seemed the party’s savior at the end of 2012, has had some ups and downs with respect to immigration and sometimes gave the impression that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Jeb Bush appears unlikely to buck his mother’s advice and probably won’t run. Governor Scott Walker is in the fight of his life seeking reelection in Wisconsin. Many in the national party don’t take Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal seriously as a presidential prospect. Senator Ted Cruz is loved by the Tea Party but hated by everyone else in the Senate and viewed as likely to be a disaster in a general election.

Rick Santorum would like the GOP to continue its tradition of nominating the runner-up from the previous primary battle, but he’s finding that most Republicans are as apathetic about his candidacy now as they were before 2012.

The one candidate who has gained ground in the last two years is Senator Rand Paul, who has expanded the libertarian base of his extremist father and shown himself to be a savvy politician even if his isolationist policies are being exposed as ill suited to the times by events in the Middle East. But while it must be conceded that Paul has a plausible chance to be the nominee, mainstream Republican opposition to him remains fierce.

All of which leaves some on the right wondering if they might not be better off trying Romney again. In a more rational world, saying that there’s a one-in-a-million shot of something happening would be interpreted as proof that it won’t, but we are discussing politics, not reason. Yet leaving aside the fact that Romney has made it perfectly clear that he won’t run again, there are good reasons why he shouldn’t even if the former Massachusetts governor changes his mind.

First and foremost is the fact that, as Romney has repeatedly said, he already tried and lost. It’s been nearly 50 years since one of the parties nominated a candidate that had already lost a general election to run for president. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but the odds are it won’t. Were Romney to start making real noises about running, the new respect he’s earned in the media would evaporate and Democrats would restart their smear campaigns about his faith and his business experience. He may have been right about the threat from Russia and much else in 2012, but don’t expect anyone in the media to remember that if he intended to run again.

More to the point, a Romney candidacy would throw away the one clear advantage the Republicans have going into the 2016 race. Any Republican running against Hillary Clinton is going to seem like a fresh-faced outsider in comparison to that veteran of more than 20 years of Washington political infighting. Anyone, that is, other than Romney. In spite of his ability to raise money and the trust he has earned from many on the right because of his dogged underdog fight against Obama, Romney would come across as a tired, if likeable retread. That isn’t going to be a winning formula against the person who will be touted as America’s potential first female president.

Republicans, especially conservatives, have good reason to feel some remorse about Romney. Many of them spent most of 2012 trashing him as a RINO instead of doing everything they could to help him beat Obama. That wasn’t the reason he lost. The odds against any Republican going up against the first African-American president were always almost insurmountable and once the economic tailspin in late 2011 turned into the more stable situation of 2012, Obama’s reelection was probably guaranteed. The awful reality of an Obama second term has inspired a surprising amount of nostalgia for Romney’s gallant efforts. But that’s no substitute for a competent and competitive 2016 candidate.

Republicans need to re-focus on their party’s deep bench. All of the possible GOP candidates will be underdogs against Clinton. But there are many with genuine promise and there’s plenty of time for them to hit their stride in the next two years. Romney deserves the love he’s belatedly getting from Republicans, but looking forward rather than backward is the GOP’s only path to victory in 2016.

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GOP Must Exploit Cuomo’s Woes

There was good news and bad new for New York Republicans in a new Quinnipiac poll. On the one hand, it showed that New Yorkers think corruption is a problem and that Governor Andrew Cuomo is part of that problem. On the other hand, he still has a huge lead in his reelection race. Should that lead the national GOP to go on ignoring the Republican who is trying to upset the incumbent?

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There was good news and bad new for New York Republicans in a new Quinnipiac poll. On the one hand, it showed that New Yorkers think corruption is a problem and that Governor Andrew Cuomo is part of that problem. On the other hand, he still has a huge lead in his reelection race. Should that lead the national GOP to go on ignoring the Republican who is trying to upset the incumbent?

Apparently, the answer to that question is yes.

Most national GOP leaders believe the Empire State is a lost cause and it’s hard to blame them for thinking so. The state party is in a state of complete collapse and hasn’t run a credible candidate, let alone a winner, for governor or for the U.S. Senate since 2002 when George Pataki won the last of his three terms in Albany. The New York City suburbs that once were the backbone of the state GOP along with the upstate regions have gone from red to purple to deep blue in the last 20 years.

Republicans in New York are leaderless, broke, and have shown little fight in the last decade. Though they have, for once, put up a serious challenger to Cuomo in Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, his 56-28 deficit in the Quinnipiac poll leaves little hope of an upset despite the major ethical problems that have beset Cuomo recently. Indeed, Republican Governors Association chair Chris Christie made it clear to Astorino that while he wished him well, he wouldn’t get a penny of the RGA’s money in order to try a run at Cuomo even after the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York indicated that the governor was under suspicion of tampering with an ethics investigation of his donors, and perhaps even obstruction of justice.

Given the mess that is the New York GOP, Christie’s decision, which echoes that of many major GOP donors, seems wise. But it is actually a big mistake. While Astorino and the New York Republican Party both seem like lost causes, if the party is serious about winning presidential elections it needs to find a way to make the state at least marginally competitive. Looking forward to 2016, Republicans already know they can write off two of the nations biggest Electoral College prizes in California and New York. That starts them off with a huge deficit that means they must, as they had to in 2012, win most if not all of the battleground states.

Can that be changed?

New York looks like a one-party state now. But it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were able to elect governors and senators there. Admittedly, New York’s demographic makeup and the overwhelmingly liberal electorate in the state with the communications capital of the nation makes it hard to imagine how any Republican will win it in the foreseeable future. But even those who accept how difficult that task will be need to understand you have to start somewhere. And Cuomo’s ethical problems are a perfect opportunity to begin the process of rebuilding.

Cynics about Astorino’s campaign need to also understand that the Quinnipiac numbers are in no small measure the result of the media’s ignoring Cuomo’s scandal. While the state’s press, like everyone else in the print and broadcast world, treated Christie’s Bridgegate woes as if it was Watergate and World War Three rolled into one, the far more serious charges that Cuomo may face didn’t get a fraction of the air time or space as the New Jersey scandal. If Astorino had the resources to start pounding Cuomo on his efforts to quash an ethics investigation and then cover it up, the governor’s margin might very well be far smaller. A serious investment in his campaign on the part of the national party might give him the ability to get Cuomo’s misbehavior back on the radar screen of voters or at least make them more aware of a scandal that was largely downplayed or ignored. Boosting Astorino, who is the kind of candidate who could stand up to the thin-skinned Cuomo, would also help Republicans running for the legislature and make it easier for the party to begin building for the future.

Ignoring Astorino and New York is a pennywise and pound-foolish decision. Cuomo’s wrongdoing is giving the GOP a chance to get back in the game. National Republicans are foolish to pass it up.

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Border Mess Won’t Help Democrats

Yesterday was a bad day for congressional Republicans. With the summer recess looming, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were working on bills relating to the crisis in which huge numbers of illegal immigrants have surged across our southern borders. But while both houses failed to pass a bill, the fiasco in the GOP-controlled House was particularly humiliating.

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Yesterday was a bad day for congressional Republicans. With the summer recess looming, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were working on bills relating to the crisis in which huge numbers of illegal immigrants have surged across our southern borders. But while both houses failed to pass a bill, the fiasco in the GOP-controlled House was particularly humiliating.

Speaker John Boehner wound up having to cancel a vote on a measure aimed at providing extra funding for the situation at the border due to a revolt from conservatives within his own caucus that was incited, according to some reports, by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Though the Democrat-controlled Senate also failed to pass its own bill about the crisis, the spectacle of Boehner being once again thwarted by a major revolt from within his own party had returned.

That was bad enough. But even worse, as Charles Krauthammer noted last night on Fox News’s Special Report, was the fact that Boehner compounded matters by then saying that President Obama taking unilateral action could address the lack of funding. As Krauthammer said:

“It is ridiculous to sue the president on a Wednesday because he oversteps the law, as he has done a dozen times illegally and unconstitutionally, and then on a Thursday say that he should overstep the law, contradict the law that passed in 2008 and deal with this [the border] himself.”

Krauthammer is right. Boehner’s stance was “ridiculous.” But no more ridiculous than the spectacle of a new GOP leadership team finding itself unable to manage its caucus even on an issue when Republicans should been eager to act so as to maintain the pressure on the administration over a situation that Republicans have aptly criticized as a man-made crisis largely the fault of President Obama.

This fiasco revived talk about the incompetence of congressional Republicans as well as the way their Tea Party faction still seems to call the tune on difficult issues such as immigration. It was enough to set liberal pundits and Democrats boasting that Boehner’s disaster could change the narrative of the midterm elections and help cost the GOP their chance to win control of the Senate this fall.

But while Boehner’s bad day won’t help Republicans, the claim that this will alter the course of the midterms is, at best, an exaggeration, and, at worst, a misperception that will lead the Democrats to misread the seriousness of the threat to their hold on the Senate.

First, it should be understood that as bad as Thursday was for the GOP, their ability to rebound from this confusion and craft a new compromise that will enable them to pass a bill today that will undo some of the damage. By passing a bill that will make it easier to deport illegal immigrants and fund the crisis on the Rio Grande, Republicans can at least depart Washington saying they have done no worse than the Democrats who weren’t even able to pass their own version of a bill on the issue.

But while President Obama railed at them for producing a bill that couldn’t pass the Senate, he is just as guilty of refusing to compromise as Boehner’s crew. The Democrats may have gained a bit of an advantage this week but if they think the border crisis is going to help them this fall, they are dreaming.

In the long run, a failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform will hurt the Republican Party with Hispanics and make their path to an Electoral College majority in 2016 even more steep than it already is. But in terms of the midterms, this is an issue that does enormous damage to the Democrats in many of this year’s battleground states. Support for a more lenient approach to the influx of illegal aliens may exist but the debacle at the border lends strength to the argument that security must precede any path to legal status for those who cross it without permission. If Democrats in red states think they can run by defending a failure to secure the border or to deport illegals, when that is something that has been encouraged by the president’s misjudgments and statements, they are mistaken.

As foolish as Boehner looked yesterday, Democrats must face up to the fact that the only national theme to this year’s elections will likely be the lack of confidence in the president. After all, no matter how incompetent the GOP House looks, the president is still the president. It will take more than a ridiculous day on Capitol Hill to erase that fact from the voters’ memory.

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Romney Beats Obama and 2016

Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

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Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

This is not the first poll to show a reversal of the last presidential election. In November 2013, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that Romney was favored by a 49-45 percent margin. The further decline of the president’s popularity in the new poll demonstrates just how far we’ve come from November 2012 when Obama won by a clear 51-47 margin that, thanks to a series of close victories in almost every swing state, translated into a 332-206 Electoral College landslide.

Obama thought he could be the exception to the iron rule of the presidency that dictates that virtually every occupant of the Oval Office will rue the day he won reelection. But neither his historic status as our first African-American president nor his decision to swing hard to the left on policy issues and to distract the public by harping on income inequality and the minimum wage helped him avoid an inevitable slide into lame duck status.

Try as they might to minimize the shift in the polls, Democrats can’t pretend that this is anything other than a decisive negative verdict from the public about the course of Obama’s second term. Over the course of the last 19 months, a rash of scandals (IRS, Benghazi, spying on the press and the VA) have undermined the credibility of the government. The ObamaCare rollout illustrated the incompetence of the president’s team and, despite the White House’s touchdown dances, set the stage for even more trouble in the future once the unpopular individual and employer mandates begin to be enforced. The crisis at our southern border was in no small measure the result of Obama’s miscalculated attempts to promote immigration reform. A host of foreign-policy disasters involving Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Hamas terrorists in Gaza was exacerbated by the ineptitude of the president’s new foreign/defense policy team of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. All these have undermined America’s prestige abroad and sapped confidence in Obama’s ability to govern or effectively promote America’s values and interests.

The president also believed that he could survive scandals and setbacks because of the unpopularity of his congressional opponents. But not even a disastrous government shutdown orchestrated by Tea Party stalwarts or the fumbling of golden opportunities to break open the scandal stories by overly partisan grandstanding House committees was enough to preserve the popularity of a president who is now widely seen as having run out of steam and ideas.

All this bodes ill for a Democratic Party that already had the odds stacked against it in the 2014 midterm elections. While it doesn’t appear that Republicans are able to leverage any single issue into the focus for a genuine wave election in the way that anger about ObamaCare lifted the GOP in 2010, the only truly national issue in 2014 appears to be discontent with Obama. Indeed, without the ability to claim their opponents will do the president’s will, the Republicans’ increasingly good chances of winning control of the Senate would be diminished.

But anyone on the right who thinks buyer’s remorse about Obama, which is perhaps also enhanced by a rethinking of the way the Democrats smeared Romney—a flawed politician who is also one of the finest men in contemporary American public life—means the Republicans have the edge heading into 2016 are not thinking straight. And that’s not just because the same CNN poll shows Romney trailing Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, by an even greater margin (55-42) than his 2012 loss to Obama.

In the 21 months since the last presidential election, Republicans have exploited Obama’s failures but they have yet to address the chronic demographic problems that undermined them in 2012. It should be remembered that most conservatives spent that year serenely confident that Obama was certain to be defeated. But the ability of Democrats to mobilize minorities and unmarried women to turn out in unprecedented numbers doomed Romney even though the president failed to make a good case for reelection. Part of that is rightly attributed to Obama’s personal popularity and his historic status. Indeed, the best thing the GOP has going for it in 2016 is that Obama won’t be on the ballot again. But none of that helps Republicans win all the battleground states they lost in 2012 if they are unable to get a greater share of those demographic groups that shunned them the last time around.

There are no simple answers to that problem. Merely passing an immigration reform bill that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship won’t do it, especially since the debacle on the Rio Grande shows the perils of attempting to legislate that without first securing the border. Nor can Republicans win single women by abandoning their principles on social issues. Similarly, the GOP needs to be wary of advice from liberal pundits calling for them to disassociate from their own conservative and Tea Party base even if some of their ideas—like Sarah Palin’s talk about impeaching Obama—should be ignored.

The solution to the problem does involve going back to some of the issues raised in COMMENTARY by Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in March 2013 when they spoke of “saving” the party with new thinking that understood that merely channeling the politics of the 1980s would not work. It also involves listening more to people like Romney running mate Paul Ryan who continues to chart a reformist course that embraces a message of economic growth and a recognition that the GOP must reach out to working class Americans, not just Wall Street.

The recognition by a majority of Americans that two terms of Obama was a dreadful mistake is a good start for Republicans. But in and of itself it won’t help any Republican beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 unless the party does the hard work of rebuilding that all parties must do after they’ve been out of power.

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Palin, Impeachment, and Unserious Politics

Is impeachment the only remedy for President Obama’s unconstitutional power grabs? Congress doesn’t seem likely to be able to restrain his attempt to rule by executive order by either legislation or lawsuits. But those, like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who advocate this course of action are saying more about themselves than they are about Obama’s misbehavior.

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Is impeachment the only remedy for President Obama’s unconstitutional power grabs? Congress doesn’t seem likely to be able to restrain his attempt to rule by executive order by either legislation or lawsuits. But those, like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who advocate this course of action are saying more about themselves than they are about Obama’s misbehavior.

Palin makes the argument for impeachment in a Breitbart.com article in which she rightly set forth the president’s failures to enforce the laws he doesn’t like (such as those that govern U.S. immigration policy) and his predilection for making up new laws that allow him do as he pleases as he goes along. This lawlessness is deplorable, but I would assert that it also reflects a general distaste for a system of checks and balances and limited powers embedded in the Constitution that seems to inform all liberal thought these days. The president’s defeats at the Supreme Court on recess appointments (where even his appointees ruled against him) and religious freedom all reflect liberal impatience with the Constitution when it interferes with Obama’s policy ambitions.

But as frustrating as Obama’s defiant “so sue me” attitude may be, any talk of impeachment is an illustration of how some on the right have become divorced from political reality. By lending what’s left of her star power to an effort that is not only an obvious non-starter but also a proposition that is bound to hurt Republicans more than it could possibly help them, Palin is demonstrating how profoundly unserious her brand of politics has become.

Advocates of impeachment can say, as they do in every administration (leftists sang the same tune about George W. Bush), that impeachment is the recourse the founders gave Congress to restrain a president that had violated the law. But in the 225 years since the first president took the oath of office, it is a measure that has always rightly been considered not merely a last resort but a tactic that is associated with extremists who have abandoned the political process. Obama is, after all, not the first president to seek to expand the power of the executive at the expense of the Congress or even the Constitution. Even when a president has been caught violating the law in one manner or the other, the consensus has always been that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard set forth in the Constitution cannot be used to settle what are essentially political disputes about policy and turf.

Nor, as Republicans learned in 1998 when they impeached Bill Clinton for committing perjury during the course of investigations of his pattern of sexual harassment of women, does the public care for attempts to undo by a hybrid legislative-judicial process the decision of the voters at the ballot box. Like efforts to demonstrate this president’s alleged ineligibility for his office, talk of impeachment is the last resort of people who can’t get their way by the normal political process.

To note this fact is not to defend Obama or to refute the arguments that Palin and others, such as myself, have made about the president’s lamentable distaste for the Constitution. But conservatives who embrace impeachment must come to terms with the fact that in doing so they are essentially branding themselves as having divorced themselves from the reality of government. Impeachment resolutions are not efforts to pressure the president to obey the law or to adopt more sensible policies. They are a declaration of war by a side that knows it is losing and can’t win by any other means. It is a sign of weakness and desperation.

In that sense, impeachment is very much of a piece with the conservative effort to force a government shutdown last year. Doing so did nothing to stop ObamaCare or to advance the critique of the Obama presidency. Indeed, it only served to distract Americans from the disastrous rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act and did more to undermine the Republican case against Obama and his law than anything their opponents ever said. Though the GOP had right on its side in that debate, their decision to essentially hold the government hostage to their demands played right into Democratic hands. It was only once they abandoned that foolish tactic that conservatives began to gain ground in the polls and give their party a chance to win the 2014 midterms.

The shutdown reflected a lack of faith in the political process on the part of conservatives who seemed to think themselves doomed to perpetual defeat. The same can be said of impeachment.

The point isn’t just that it is politically impossible, though it is that and will be even if the Republicans take back the Senate next year since most in the GOP caucuses understand an impeachment vote would help the Democrats more than the shutdown. It’s Palin’s threat to urge conservatives to “vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment” that is the real problem.

Palin remains a genuine political talent and can, when she sticks to topics that she knows something about, be an effective advocate. But her brittle and often graceless approach to political discourse has cost her mainstream appeal and made her a polarizing figure with little hope of appealing to anyone outside her existing circle of admirers. Palin still has a following and though she knows it isn’t anywhere near big enough to justify her risking her reputation by running for national office, it is sufficient to have a potent influence in some GOP primaries. If she attempts to make support for impeachment a litmus test for Republican candidates she will not only be hurting her party but marginalizing herself. Her decision to go down this path is just one more sign that she has abandoned serious politics in favor of something that can only further diminish what’s left of her celebrity quotient.

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