Last week, I looked back at this year, highlighting the key events in both politics and the Church. This week, let’s look ahead to 2016 and anticipate what the new year will bring. I will try and stay away from predictions, which have a way of coming back and biting a writer in the behind. Instead, I will try and frame what are the dominant trends, many of which carry over from this year, and how the choices that will be made will affect the realm of politics, the church, and the intersection of the two. We’ll start with politics.
This past weekend, I had coffee with a political scientist who is far smarter than I, and I posed him a simple question: Will the Republican Party self–destruct? He wisely observed that political parties are formidable things, and that while the GOP seems intent on dealing itself the worst possible hand in next year’s presidential contest, the party will distance itself from any nominee who wishes his colleagues to play the part of lemmings, and jump over the cliff with him. This is undoubtedly true. Politicians worry most about their own reelection prospects, and only secondarily about what is good for the partisan brand, but in the likelihood that Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz is the GOP presidential nominee, the interest of individual members of Congress, and other office holders, will cohere with the interests of the party. They will pretend they do not know the nominee and run as far as possible from the expected drag on the ticket.
Cruz is the best–positioned of the candidates at this moment. He is rising in the polls, stands to benefit from Dr. Ben Carson’s declining poll numbers, and would also be the most likely beneficiary if Trump’s campaign implodes. Cruz has gobs of money and he is both smart and disciplined. He is also frighteningly rightwing, far out of the mainstream, and would likely lose 40 states. If Trump were to emerge as the nominee, he would keep the race interesting, but interesting the way a train wreck is interesting. During the last debate, there was a point at which he obviously did not know what the nuclear triad was and the moderator did not push him. In a two–person debate, Hillary would pounce and ask him directly, “Do you understand the question? Can you explain what the nuclear triad is?” Trump is Sarah Palin in male form, someone who, by chance and circumstance has been lifted up far, far beyond what they merit.
Normally, a presidential candidate who has run a strongly ideological campaign can choose a running mate to provide balance. For example, Ronald Reagan chose George H. W. Bush and George H.W. Bush chose Sen. Dan Quayle. But, in today’s ideologically driven GOP landscape, such a choice would be seen as a betrayal. Cruz would likely pick someone who shares his ideological commitment, not someone who would balance them. Trump might pick one of the Kardashian sisters. No matter how it plays out, the GOP looks like it will be stuck with a presidential candidate who is so far to the right, it is hard to imagine them winning.
This presents a huge opportunity for the Democrats and, specifically, for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her campaign team is primed to run a base election, highlighting those issues that get different segments of the Democratic base riled up. That made sense for Obama in 2012, although the results were regrettable for the country. The people who staff campaigns often have worked at special interest groups like Emily’s List, and this extends not only to the policy team but, even more importantly, to the fundraising team. They have their pet causes that they will want highlighted, and they will have the polling and fundraising data to demonstrate why such a strategy will work. This would lead to another "war on women" campaign.
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This strategy does not make sense in 2016. If the GOP is going off the deep end on the right, Clinton has the chance to play for the center. That strategy would help Democrats in down ballot races and would likely produce a larger margin of victory for her too. And, if she were to select three or four issues on which Democrats propose policies that actually do receive widespread support from the ideological center, she could claim a mandate to enact those policies if she won in a landslide. Raising the minimum wage would be one such policy. It both appeals to the base and enjoys widespread support from Independent voters. Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage, and the only way it will be enacted is if she wins with a specific mandate to achieve it. Another such policy would be removing the cap on income subject to FICA tax, which is currently at about $107,000. A person who makes $107,000 and a person who makes $1.7 million pay the exact same amount in Social Security taxes. That’s nuts, but nutty in a way that it is easy to explain to the American people, many of whom do worry about the solvency of Social Security and even more of whom do not make enough to even know about the FICA cap.
If Clinton were really aiming to garner an overwhelming landslide, she would be well advised to select half a dozen, or more, federal government programs that have outlived their usefulness and could be terminated. Many Independent voters do not trust Democrats because they view them as spendthrifts. Acknowledging the need to trim government programs that may have met a need fifty or seventy years ago, but which serve no important purpose today, would be the kind of thing that would attract Independent voters to the Democratic brand, which would help not only Clinton by the other Democrats running in 2016.
Control of the U.S. Senate is very much in play next year. The Democrats have ten seats at risk and the Republicans have 24 seats. The candidates running were elected in 2010, which was an midterm election, with an older, whiter electorate than that which will vote in November, and its was a "wave election" in which Republicans won seats they had not even fantasized about winning only a few months prior. Four of those seats, in Florida, New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin are already in the "Toss Up" column at the Cook Political Report, and an additional three seats currently held by Republicans, in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are only in the "Lean Republican" column. With dismal showing at the top of the ticket, the GOP could lose all seven seats. After all, President Obama won Pennsylvania by 310,000 votes in 2016, and Ohio by 160,000 votes, and he only lost North Carolina by 92,000 votes. And that was with Mitt Romney at the top of the GOP field. If there is a wave in 2016, it will be a blue wave, and it could swamp a lot of Republican Senators.
Winning the House will be almost impossible for the Democrats. The GOP has its largest majority in the lower chamber since the 1920s, and they continue to benefit from the redistricting undertaken after the 2010 census, which redrew the congressional maps in ways that make it very hard for Democrats. The Cook Report indicates that fifteen seats currently held by Republicans are either in the "Toss Up" column or worse for the incumbent, while only four Democratic seats are in such bad shape. Another 23 Republican members of Congress are rated as "likely" or "lean" against 13 Democrats. 209 GOP members are rated as "solid" compared to 171 Democrats. So, in order to retake the House, the Democrats would have to win all the "Toss Up" seats, and 13 of the 23 "lean" or "likely" GOP contests, without losing any of their own seats in those categories. It is a tall order and, again, I suspect the leadership of the House to be perfectly willing to distance itself from either Trump or Cruz if one of those two men is the nominee.
It is hard to know what President Obama will do with his last year. His range of motion is limited by GOP control of both houses of Congress and the Constitution. He clearly regrets both sets of limitations. That said, as I have noted before, a man in search of a legacy can be the most dangerous of men, and I would not trust Obama with his economic advisors in a room with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and his economic advisors. Something very much like the Simpson–Bowles deficit reduction plan might appeal to both men and it certainly would not appeal to me. Here, however, Mrs. Clinton, aided by Sen. Harry Reid, might be able to frustrate any such grand bargain achieved on the backs of working class folk. Surely, for all his vanity, and I think his vanity is very pronounced, even Mr. Obama recognizes that the Democrats hand will likely be stronger in the next Congress than it is in this one, and that a better deal might be achieved by his successor than by himself. Look for him to pursue pet projects like closing Gitmo, which is relatively unimportant, and which effort will poison efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, which is important.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the person about whom predictions are the most difficult for 2016. He was thrust into the speakership in the wake of a conservative revolt against his predecessor John Boehner, yet those same conservatives largely gave Ryan a pass on the Omnibus tax and spending bills passed just before Christmas. There were things in those bills I liked, such as making the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps the working poor, permanent, and things I did not like, such as extending a bunch of corporate tax breaks, but what was in there for conservatives to like? On the whole, the Omnibus failed to address the thing they say they most care about, deficit spending; In fact, the bill made the deficits considerably worse. How Ryan will balance the demands of conservatives with the need to govern will be fascinating to watch. As well, this column will be watching closely to see if he follows up on his stated interest in addressing issues of poverty, and if he does so in ways that depart from the libertarian ideology that has so far driven his policy stances. And, all of Ran's decisions must be taken against the backdrop of the brute fact that on the day after the elections in November, most of the party will be looking to him for leadership, just as it turned to him after Boehner's resignation.
One of the great things about politics, of course, is that unforeseen events intercede and shuffle everyone’s plans and prognostications. Who really knows what would happen if the GOP has a contested convention? Who knows what kinds of attacks from Islamicist extremists will hit the U.S. or Europe? Who knows what catastrophes, natural or man–made, await us, all with the ability to change the trajectory of political discourse and decision–making. Whatever happens, you will be able to read about it here at Distinctly Catholic.