Opinion

The Great Debate

The first woman president is not about the past

Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Want to see excitement? Look at the polls. In the latest CBS News-New York Times survey, 64 percent of Americans say they would like to see Clinton run for president. No other potential contender in either party — Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — gets more than 33 percent.

The first woman president of the United States is not about the past. It’s about the New America — the coalition that Obama brought to power. It’s a coalition of out-groups — including African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, gays, young people, the unchurched. What holds the coalition together is a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

What unites Democrats? Republicans!

Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.

But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.

Obama’s address: Borrowing from Bubba and the Gipper

Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.

Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”

By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

Troubled Ties: The Clintons and populism

What’s behind the sudden outburst of populism in the Democratic Party?

Partly the weak economic recovery. Most economic indicators have turned positive — economic growth is up, unemployment down, the housing market is in recovery. But ordinary Americans are not feeling it. In last month’s CNN poll, two thirds of Americans said the nation’s economy was poor. More than half expect it to remain poor a year from now.

People at the top of the income ladder have been raking in the money while wage growth for working Americans has stagnated. That’s a recipe for a populist explosion.

Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started in 2011 and spread across the country? Most pundits don’t believe it had any impact, especially compared with the Tea Party. They’re wrong. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Occupy movement introduced the phrase “1 Percent” into the nation’s political vocabulary. That’s what defeated the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney was Mr. 1 Percent.

Clinton: The newest New Democrat

Democrats have a history of plucking presidential candidates out of obscurity: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans are supposed to go for whomever is next in line, particularly if they have run before: Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It looks like just the opposite for 2016.

In the latest Iowa poll, Hillary Clinton completely dominates the Democratic field with 56 percent of the likely caucus vote (she came in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards). No other potential Democratic candidate gets more than single digit support. It’s Clinton’s turn.

And for the Republican nomination? The top choice of Iowa caucus-goers is “unsure” (36 percent), followed by Senator Marco Rubio (11 percent), Senator Rand Paul (10.5), Representative Paul Ryan (9), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (8.7), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7.7) and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum (6.7). Meaning, the Republican race is wide open. In 2016, Republicans may very well end up plucking a candidate out of obscurity. Hey, it’s worked for Democrats before.

Democrats must overcome Clinton nostalgia

President Bill Clinton salutes supporters at a campaign rally Oct. 31, 1996. REUTERS/Archive. 

Democrats now delight in watching Republicans flounder as they try to free themselves from the failures of President George W. Bush and the extremes of the Tea Party. But the GOP’s tribulations should not blind Democrats to their own challenge. The party must free itself from the legacy of former President Bill Clinton and the centrism of his New Democrats.

Clinton’s successes in office have little relevance for Democrats today. The 1990s were a very different time both politically and economically. In fact, many of Clinton’s policies led to the travails now facing Americans. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And Clinton’s strategy of co-opting conservative themes offers no way out.

The price of defying your base

Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.

Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?

Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong.  Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.

Can GOP blame Obama for the sequester?

More than 25 years ago, Representative Jack Kemp told me, “In the past, the left had a thesis: spending, redistribution of wealth and deficits. Republicans were the antithesis: spending is bad.”

He went on to explain, “Ronald Reagan represented a breakthrough for our party. We could talk about lower taxes and more growth. We didn’t have to spend all our time preaching austerity and spending cuts. The question now is: Do we take our thesis and move it further, or do we revert to an anti-spending party?”

We now have the answer. Republicans have reverted to an anti-spending party. Their latest cause? Austerity. Their argument? A shrinking economy is better than big government.

Obama must surprise in State of the Union

President Barack Obama stirred with an unexpectedly powerful inaugural address – a second effort that far surpassed his first. He summoned great themes of American history to argue cogently for his second-term agenda. Now he has a chance to deliver a State of the Union address that improves on those of his first term, too.

The key to success? Presidents still have the power of surprise. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I am like a cat. I make a quick stroke, and then I relax.” As in his inaugural, Obama should surprise us – this time with new policies and sharp specificity. On the budget, democracy reform and immigration, the president stands well positioned.

Forget the Super Bowl, or even the Oscars. For us policy wonks and ex-speechwriters, this is the biggest event – the time to crack open a beer, microwave the Buffalo chicken wings and settle down in front of the TV for a siege of viewing.

  •