There was a clear disconnect this weekend between those attending the meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston and the mainstream media. While, by all accounts, the RNC was upbeat and fully behind Chairman Reince Preibus’s attempts to push back at the party’s liberal tormentors by threatening to boycott networks that produced puff pieces on Hillary Clinton, most of the commentary about the gathering focused on the idea that the GOP was hopelessly divided and drifting farther to the right. The best example of this genre was the piece published in Politico on Friday under the almost farcically biased headline “Eve of Destruction.”
The article claimed that every “establishment Republican” in Washington was convinced the party was in hopeless shape and that it was, if anything, in even worse condition than it had been the day after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney. With blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, and swing voters completely alienated and every effort to drag the party toward a realistic position on major issues thwarted, Republicans have, Politico seemed to argue, already lost the 2016 presidential election. If all this is true, you have to wonder why the RNC even bothered to meet.
But while the GOP definitely has its challenges, the exaggerated reports of its demise should be taken with a shovelful of salt. Far from being dead in the water, the fact that Republicans are debating key issues is a sign of health, not a terminal illness. With help from their cheering section in the media, Democrats may have gotten a leg up on characterizing Republicans as a band of extremists. But Obama’s party should be worrying more about the way the problems of the ObamaCare rollout and a steady diet of domestic scandals and foreign-policy disasters could sink them rather than chortling about the GOP’s problems. Liberals may hope that extremists will be dictating the Republican agenda in the next three years, but the party’s prospects in both 2014 and 2016 are actually quite bright.
Let’s acknowledge that the battle over immigration reform and the talk by some Republicans of risking another government shutdown present Democrats with a clear opportunity. Should opponents of any effort to fix a broken immigration system succeed in thwarting efforts to pass a legislative package on the issue, it will be a gift to the Democrats and one they will have little trouble in capitalizing upon. A government shutdown, even to stop the funding of a deeply unpopular and clearly unmanageable scheme like ObamaCare, will also play into the president’s hands.
But these threats are a function of a debate going on in the GOP as it copes with the inevitable problems that always pop up when a party doesn’t control the White House. Unlike the Democrats, who are as divided on many issues as the Republicans, the GOP lacks a clear leader and a party infrastructure that is oriented toward the goal of furthering that leader’s agenda. As with any opposition party, Republicans are at the mercy of the factions that are competing for pre-eminence, with libertarians who like Rand Paul’s vision of government bumping heads with so-called establishment types.
But the media’s picture of a party held captive by extremists on abortion and obstructionists who wish to destroy the federal government is misleading. What the doomsayers fail to understand is that with a weak economy and the albatross of ObamaCare, Democrats are carrying far heavier burdens into upcoming elections than their rivals. Even if we ignore 2014, which even Politico suggested is likely to be a highly successful year for Republicans as they have an even chance to win back the Senate, the notion that the upcoming presidential campaign will be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton reflects mindless Democratic optimism.
First of all, the odds that Republicans will actually shut down the government this fall are slim. Though Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio may mean business, the vast majority of the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have little appetite for suicide. On immigration, the battle to get something passed in the House will be tough, but the ideal Democratic scenario of no bill in the lower chamber probably won’t be realized. The result probably won’t be satisfactory for reform advocates, but, as with the suicide caucus in the Senate on ObamaCare, many Republicans will be sufficiently turned off by anti-immigration extremists like Steve King to persuade them to get something through that can’t be represented as the shutout Democrats crave.
Nor will the Democrats be able to succeed as well as they did last year with another fake “war on women” as a result of abortion battles. Liberals would be well advised to avoid a national debate on late-term abortion. Most of those who favor legal abortion in the first trimester are opposed to a procedure that is closer to infanticide than “choice” after 20 weeks. This is an issue that is fought on conservative ground and Democrats would be foolish to engage in it.
Moreover, all the doomsayers about Republicans in 2016 are ignoring the GOP’s key asset and the Democrats’ greatest liability. Republicans have a strong lineup of possible candidates in the next cycle rather than the collection of marginal figures that dominated the field that Mitt Romney beat in 2012. In particular, successful GOP governors like Chris Christie and Scott Walker should scare Democrats.
Just as important, in 2016 Democrats will be without the main factor that won them the last two presidential elections: Barack Obama. Though the prospect of the first female president will be an edge for Clinton, she is the same politician who lost a race that was handed to her on a silver platter in 2008 and will carry the baggage from the last two Democratic administrations. Without Obama’s magical touch and ability to mobilize huge turnouts from their core constituencies, the playing field in 2016 will be considerably more level than it was in 2012.
Just as important is a factor that has garnered little attention: the erasing of the Democrats’ digital and technological edge. In 2012, Democrats had a far more sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign while Republicans were hampered by a campaign machine that couldn’t compete and was highly inefficient. Priebus seems to have taken steps to correct this shortfall and it’s unlikely that Democrats will be able to count on that advantage again.
Republicans have their problems, and should extremist libertarians capture the party and government shutdown advocates win out, it won’t have much hope of winning a presidential election. But that is not something Democrats should be counting on. The GOP has work to do to win over swing voters in the next three years–but so do Democrats. If, as appears to be their preference, they rest on their laurels and count on ObamaCare to avoid damaging the economy, in January 2017 they will find themselves reading similar columns to the Politico piece about themselves.