For the moment, try to put yourself in the position of a swing voter who will determine the course of the 2016 presidential election and the nation. You are frustrated with the direction in which the country is headed. You may not resent the gains social progressivism has made over the years, but you are concerned that they have come at the expense of the liberty of others. Those gains have come at a cost acutely felt by your friends and neighbors. Though you do not harbor any ill will towards them, those who benefit most from the advance of the liberal agenda are people who you may never meet and who, for you, are entirely hypothetical. The pace of the economic recovery has been engagingly unenergetic. The threat of a new contraction looms forever just over the horizon, even as you struggle to meet today’s financial burdens. Abroad, America has never looked more threatened and less respected by adversary and ally alike. It’s time for a change in direction, but toward what? Republicans have gone to great lengths to reestablish the trust of voters after George W. Bush’s second term and the 2007-2008 financial collapse sapped the public’s faith in the GOP’s governing program. Gradually, painstakingly, Republicans have won back the voters’ support and hold more elected offices today than they have for close to a century. But all that improvement threatens to be undone by the not inaccurate impression among voters that the GOP is in crisis — at war with itself — and that it may be unable to serve as a responsible governing party.
Contrary to pervasive but shallow consensus opinion among a prominent cast of political analysts, Barack Obama is not a popular president. While the Oval Office occupant is not as unpopular today as he has been in the recent past, that’s damnation by faint praise. “To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure,” The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost observed. “If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.” His anointed Democratic successor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is also struggling. A recent Quinnipiac University survey of the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire revealed that Clinton’s favorability ratings had collapsed. Those findings were confirmed by NBC News/Marist University, which revealed that Clinton’s favorability among registered voters had sunk to -19 and -20% in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively. Nationally, according to Gallup, Clinton favorability rating is now underwater at 43 to 46 percent, “tilting her image negative and producing her worst net favorable score since December 2007.”
Clinton’s favorability ratings are no doubt a reflection of her personal shortcomings and distaste for the fact that she has such a limited regard for voters’ intelligence that she would repeatedly – compulsively — mislead them. But they are also a reflection of the country’s natural desire to move on from the Obama era after his two terms in the White House. Polls show that twice as many Americans believe the country is headed down the wrong track, and that has been the case consistently since the middle of 2010. From the expansion of same-sex marriage rights nationally to extended access to federally subsidized health insurance to the furling of the Confederate flag over public grounds; progressives have enjoyed a variety of social issues victories, and voters are not thrilled about it. “The poll finds all three issues are fairly divisive among the public at-large, with large shares seeing policy shift in a direction at odds with their views,” read a Washington Post report on a recent survey that found voters are uncomfortable with the direction “progress” has taken in recent years.
All this suggests that the 2016 political landscape should be fertile ground in which Republicans can sow the seeds of electoral victory. But the coming election will not merely be a referendum on the last eight years – it will also be an up or down vote on whether Republicans are ready to retake hold of the reins of government. At present, they don’t look like they are.
Over the weekend, an internecine squabble among Senate Republicans exploded into an outright row. A long-term highway funding bill, which has become an unattractive vehicle through which America’s political class rewards a variety of valued constituencies, became a proxy battlefield on which Republican officeholders waged a variety of fights. From renewing the expired Export-Import Bank, to defunding Planned Parenthood, to repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans went to war with one another over what the party’s various factions in Congress see as pressing priorities. In an effort to block debate over the legitimacy of federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adopted a favored tactic of his Democratic predecessor, Harry Reid, and used a procedural maneuver to prevent further amendments to and subsequent debate on that piece of legislation.
“What we saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over again was a simple lie,” presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz said of the majority leader last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.”
“We’re not here on some frolic or to pursue personal ambitions,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch shot back. “We must ensure that the pernicious trend of turning the Senate floor into a forum for advancing personal ambitions, for promoting political campaigns, or for enhancing fundraising activities comes to a stop.” Hatch added that Cruz’s conduct had been a “misuse of the Senate floor.”
In 2014, Republicans won a majority in the upper chamber of Congress just large enough to yield the party committee chairmanships and to block Democratic legislation from reaching the president’s desk, but not large enough to advance legislation of their own. But the Republican pitch to conservatives that increasingly rests on decisively winning the next election, always the next election, is starting to ring hollow. “Being a negative force is not nothing, and blocking bad policy is worthwhile,” The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wrote. “But when given the opportunity to put good policy into place, or to take steps to make such policy more feasible in the future, where is the Republican Party to be found?”
Nowhere, he argues. It’s an argument that resonates to an ever larger number of Republican base voters. “Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago,” the Pew Research Center revealed this week. Only two-thirds of self-identified Republicans view their party favorably, down from 86 percent in 2014. The GOP is viewed positively today by just 32 percent of the public compared to the Democratic Party’s 48 percent.
To some extent, this internal tension is healthy. Only a minority coalition is small enough to ensure that most of its members agree on specific policy proposals. But a Republican Party at war with itself does not look to the persuadable voter like a party that is capable of governing in the executive. The truly independent voters who determine the outcome of national elections don’t care about the Export-Import Bank or the parliamentary machinations that have so roiled conservatives. They care about whether or not they’re handing the levers of power to an undisciplined group of loose cannons and ideologues, and, to a marginally tuned in swing voter, that’s what the GOP looks like today. In concert with the spectacle that has become of the admittedly nascent Republican presidential primary race, it is only natural that voters would be asking themselves if the GOP should again be trusted with the White House.
Voters are ready to make a change. If history is any guide, they will swing in a more conservative direction. As was the case in 2013 when the GOP forced a showdown over ObamaCare that shut down the government, a saving grace for Republicans can be found in the happy fact that it remains an off year. Voters have time to make up their minds, and today’s fights will be forgotten well before the first votes are cast in 2016. If, however, the disunity that characterizes Republican intraparty politics today remains the party’s defining feature by next autumn, the public will be disinclined to reward the GOP with the presidency.