Why Hillary Clinton Will Win in 2016: the Fate of the Republican Party and the 2016 Election
About the author
Matthew Lakin is researching a DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford. The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
The Republican Party – unlike other Centre-Right political parties in Europe – is in trouble. David Frum, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and sire of ‘liberal’ Republicanism, has outlined the dire predicament for the Republican Party:
‘The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America. In the quarter century since 1988, there have been six presidential elections. Only once – once! – did the Republican candidate win a majority of the popular vote, and then by the miserable margin of 50.73 percent.’
How did a Party that was electorally dominant in the 1970s and 1980s lose its way? The Republicans won five out of the six elections from 1968 to 1988. Republicans mistakenly and complacently comfort themselves with their big victories in mid-term elections in 1994 and 2010, but in both elections a ‘different America’ showed up to the one that showed up in 1992/1996 and 2008/2012. Not only do mid-terms have lower turnouts, but the America that turns out in them is disproportionately wealthy, white and elderly. The America – that voted for Clinton, and Obama in 2008 – turned up in 2012 and denied Mitt Romney and the Republicans the presidency. Since the 2012 Election, things have deteriorated further for the Republicans. The Congressional Republicans during the shutdown in October 2013 recorded a record low approval rating of 28%.
Stuck in the Past
Why did this happen? An understanding of the past sheds light on the present. The Republican Party’s problems reside at the very apogee of their recent and contemporary political and ideological dominance: the 1980s, in which President Ronald Reagan recreated the American climate of opinion in his own image. Reagan was the 1980s and the 1980s was Reagan. Gil Troy, the American presidential historian, contended that ‘Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s’. Despite the dominance, Reagan’s politics was built on a shaky coalition of ideas. This shaky set of ideas is often called in the academic literature the ‘New Right’: the revival of a set of social, economic, cultural and political ideas that had been dormant and marginal in the America from the dawn of President Roosevelt’s New Deal right through to President Johnson’s Great Society agenda in the 1960s. Reagan’s American New Right suffered from a paradox which is located at the epicentre of its political thinking. This paradox was evident in the parallel languages employed by Republicans in the 1980s. These parallel languages were the language of liberty and freedom in economic affairs and a language of control and censorship in social affairs. In essence, Reaganism was a belief in the rolling back of government in the economy (i.e. tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, liberalisation, etc.) and rolling forward government in society (i.e. prayer in school; restrictions on federal funding of abortions; anti-feminism, etc.). This political irreconcilability was largely ignored in the 1980s, in part, because of Reagan’s deft political touch in satisfying the Republican coalition: a grand coalition satisfying economic, national security and social conservatives.
Since the modernisation of the Democratic Party in the 1980s under the aegis of the Democratic Leadership Council that provided the governing philosophy for the Clinton-Gore 1990s, the Republican Party has struggled to recapture a majority in American politics. There are several reasons for this. Chief among them are the ideas and policies that animated the Reagan coalition that made more sense in the early 1980s than they did in the 1990s, 2000s or 2010s. Furthermore, because of the electoral popularity and ideological success of Reaganism, the Reagan years have been mythologised and simplistically reconstructed by Republicans. Reagan has become a ‘secular saint’ with statues erected of him across America. Reagan overshadows the Republican Party and, as such, no one quite matches up. After Reagan, the Party became frustrated with the moderateness of President George H. W. Bush’s (President from 1989-1993) Republicanism. Bush offered a softer conservatism than his predecessor. Bush talked about a ‘thousand points of light‘ in which governments played an enabling role in helping citizens engage with their communities in order to solve problems. Further offences caused by the Bush administration, from the view of the Republican Right, included the reneging on his pledge to ‘read his lips’ on ‘no new taxes’, his reauthorisation of the Clean Air Act, and the increased federal spending for education and childcare. Bush’s defeat in 1992 cleared the way for the battle between President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.
The parallels between the Republicans’ conduct and underlying ideological objectives in the Clinton era and the Obama era are striking. In the 1994 mid-term, the Republicans offered a Contract with America, and in the 2010 mid-term, the Republicans offered a Pledge to America. Both elicit an anti-Washington, anti-‘Inside the Beltway’ politics and promote lots of cutting, lots of capping, lots of balancing and lots of repealing. In both eras, Republicans were insulted that the country turned to a candidate they felt was ‘unAmerican’. For Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House and leader of the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, Clinton was a ‘counterculture McGovernite’, and for Obama, 30% of Republicans believe he is Muslim; 63% think he’s a socialist; 39% think he should be impeached; 24% think he wants ‘the terrorists to win’; and 31% agreed with the statement that Obama is ‘a racist who hates white people’. Republicans, in both eras, stymied the functioning of government with two shutdowns in 1995 and 1995-96, and the recent shutdown in October 2013. Republicans in both eras put up relenting opposition to Presidents Clinton and Obama’s healthcare plans, with a successful rejection of the former’s and a reluctant, ongoing realisation that they’ve been defeated in the latter case. You can be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.
[pullquote]…the Bush Presidency was crisis-ridden…a disaster, even on its own terms.[/pullquote]The Republicans seemed to have rebuilt the Reagan coalition by the 2000s. However, Republican ‘success’ in the 2000s was a chimera. The Republicans, despite winning the Electoral College vote, failed to win the Popular Vote in the controversial 2000 Presidential Election. They won, narrowly, in 2004 on the basis that President Bush was a ‘war time President’ in which he was going to fight the ‘culture war’ within (‘values‘ and the so-called ‘three gs’: ‘God, guns and gays’) and without (the global War on Terror). With the help of Karl Rove, his éminence grise, Bush tried to create ‘new realities’, but the reality created was not congenial to the political or ideological benefit of Republicans. Instead, the legacy of the Bush Presidency was quite different. From 9/11, to Guantanamo Bay, to Hurricane Katrina, to the worst financial crisis since the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and to the Great Depression, the Bush Presidency was crisis-ridden. Despite some policy accomplishments like No Child Left Behind and the legacy he wrought on aid to Africa, his presidency was a disaster, even on its own terms. Towards the end of his Presidency, Bush had approval ratings comparable to the approval ratings of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. For Republicans – supplied with the unresolved paradoxes and conflicts of the Reagan era between neo-liberal market freedom and neo-conservative social control and foreign bellicosity; the anti-Washington rhetoric of Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the 1990s; and the Bush presidency with its twin peaks of 9/11 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers – the dusk of the Bush years and the dawn of the Obama years created what academics called a ‘crisis of conservatism’.
The problems for the Republicans under Bush were not solely confined to the misery of events. Steven Teles and Jon Herbert wrote a superb essay in 2011 about the tension in the Bush Administration between a neoliberal political economy and its support for activist government. These were inherited tensions from Reagan’s prima facie peculiar mixture of social reactionaries with buccaneering market liberators. Bush had inherited a confused and often contradictory ‘aging coalition’ of voters: the coalition formed by Nixon and Reagan. Many of the goals of the Republican Party had been achieved, and the demographic base – whilst expanding for the Democrats – has been shrinking for the Republicans.
The Emergence of the Tea Party
While Obama’s ‘new coalition’ were expecting – and hoping – that Obama and the Democrat majority in Congress would deliver on the promise of a ‘New New Deal’ to rescue America from Bush’s Great Recession, the Republicans began a grim and yet confusing postmortem. Conservative spending hawks balked at Bush’s bailouts for banks, and the implementation of big government programmes like No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. The Right denounced the Bush-Cheney years as years where government got too big and thus years of insufficient conservatism. This was in contrast to the eight years of the Bush presidency where there was near unanimous approval among Congressional Republicans and the wider GOP for the Republican president. Amongst the Republican Party clamour however, a group emerged that challenged both political parties. It was a populist grassroots movement called the ‘Tea Party’. Its origins go back to Rick Santelli’s outburst in February 2009 suggesting that government was ‘promoting bad behaviour’ and those individuals who’d taken out ‘sub-prime mortgages’ were ‘losers’. Santelli, thus invoked a ‘Tea Party’ (tea stands for ‘taxed enough already’). For Santelli and the Tea Party were using a language of libertarianism to reject government assistance and new government programmes. This was the birth of a movement that has challenged both the Democrats and Republicans, and is the sole and primary reason for the political gridlock in Washington. The Tea Party is more complex than it appears. It is not a libertarian movement, but it has economic libertarianism in it. It is a complex ideology: Southern revanchism; nativism; conditional economic libertarianism; anti-statism; moral conservatism; and anti-social liberalism. For Frum, the Tea Party’s social conservatism is prior to their economic conservatism: ‘it was economically conservative because it was socially conservative.’ Frum correctly notes that the Tea Party are not consistently libertarian in their approach to government, as they are keen to protect their entitlements but don’t want them extended to the ‘other America’: ethnic minorities, the young and the liberal. Obama’s new government activism – bailing out the Automotive industry; re-regulating Wall Street and regulating insurance companies in an attempt to deliver a more equitable and fairer health care system – does not purportedly benefit the America smitten with the Tea Party.
Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s work on the Tea Party alludes to a Tea Party that is a coalition of two sets of interest groups: the grassroots who are hostile to ‘Big Government’ because they are reluctant to pay taxes – let alone more taxes – to the ‘undeserving’ Americans, mostly identified as young, immigrant or poor Americans; and the second group, the wealthy funders of the Tea Party, want a consistent economically-libertarian agenda in arguing for more deregulation of business and Wall Street. There is an internal unity in that it is both a grassroots and elite conservative reaction to Obama’s activist government liberalism. It is a retrenchment of the role of government in the economy, a distaste for the increasing social liberalism of American society, and it promotes its conservatism in an unabashed populist rhetoric (i.e. the ‘Hockey Mom’ rhetoric of Sarah Palin). The Tea Party not only treats Obama’s government activism with hostility, but they are critical of the ‘establishment’ Republicans like John McCain. The Tea Party’s anger with the Republicans led to an unprecedented situation where establishment Republicans lost their candidature to Tea Party candidates. Most notably, Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell beat nine-term US Representative Michael Castle in Delaware’s September 2010 Republican primary for the Senate. Even though unsuccessful, many of O’Donnell’s ideological comrades were successful: Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate from Florida; Mike Lee as the Senator for Utah; and as many as 10% of the House of Representatives are part of the Tea Party caucus.
The Republicans took back the House of Representatives in the mid-terms elections in September 2010. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives since their inauguration – and the replacement of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Republican Speaker John Boehner – has been one of the most unproductive in terms of passing legislation in American history. Boehner’s Republicans avowedly believe that ‘Most Americans think we have too many laws. And what they want us to do is repeal more of those.’ And repeal is what they’ve tried to do. By September 2013, the House GOP had voted 42 times – yes 42 times – to repeal or otherwise undermine Obama’s healthcare law, that had not only been passed by Congress and was signed into law by the President, but was ruled constitutional 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
With a record of electoral failure and underachievement; with a Party divided between a shrinking number of moderates willing to work across the aisle with Democrats to get things done and an insurgent Tea Party conservatism that believes that working with Democrats is tantamount to treachery; a Minority Leader of the Senate – Mitch McConnell who claimed at the beginning of Obama’s first term that the primary job of Republicans was to make Obama a ‘one-term president’; a House GOP trying to repeal legislation that has become law; and a Party yearning for the day before yesterday in the hope that they can recapture some of Reagan’s magic — what hope have they got in 2016?
Conclusion: A Year After Romney’s Loss
Three of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination for President in 2016 are darlings of the Tea Party. Firstly, Ted Cruz – the leader of the October 2013 shutdown. Second, Rand Paul – the gospel of libertarianism. And third, Marco Rubio – the ‘crown prince of the Tea Party movement.’ Cruz is notable for his monomania: his singular hatred for Obama’s healthcare law. Cruz is also known for his puerile filibusters in the run-up to the government shutdown. Hardly a reassuring figure nor a safe pair of hands. What about Rand Paul? Unfortunately – like his father Ron Paul – his libertarianism appeals to the GOP conservatives who hate big government, but doesn’t appeal to neo-conservative foreign policy hawks. Like his father, he’s unlikely to win the nomination.
And — finally — Rubio. Rubio is an articulate and bright Senator from Florida. Rubio is more cerebral and calm, but just as conservative as his fellow Tea Party Republicans. Rubio is also a Latino, a key demographic that the Republicans need to win over if they are to secure the White House in 2016. Furthermore, he is the favourite to receive donations from the mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
However, none of these leading candidates will push through the changes the Republican Party needs in order to be a majority-winning Party again. Influential voices like Gingrich explain the underachievement of Republicans by condemning their nominees — Bob Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 — as ‘moderates’. The idea that Republican failure is because they have been insufficiently conservative is wide off the mark and incredulous. Just remember that Romney described himself not as a conservative in 2012, but a ‘severe conservative’. The hopes of a Republican victory in 2016 look slim. Events could change of course, but Republicans first need to embrace America as it is, and in doing so, stop the futile contrivance of creating an America that doesn’t exist. For example, Republicans need to accept that same-sex marriage is becoming part of the American cultural mainstream. Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life released a study that showed that only 43% of Americans opposed marriage equality in 2013 compared to 57% in 2001. Moderate and more ‘liberal’ Republicans who agree with same-sex marriage like Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, are ‘ahead of the GOP curve’ in identifying social trends. A poll by ABC News and the Washington Post earlier in the year found 52% of Republicans and Independents who lean Republican under the age of 50 supported same-sex marriage and 81% of people under 30 were in favour.
The era of Reagan is over. It was symbolically over in 2008. According to Gillian Peele and Joel D. Aberbach:
‘…the Democrat’s success on the slogan of ‘change we can believe in’ seemingly brought to a close a long period, running from the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, in which the Republican Party and conservative values had dominated the country’s political discourse.’
Even Reagan-sycophants like Gingrich in January 2008 said, ‘The era of Ronald Reagan is over.’ And yet, a majority of the Republican Party are still fighting the fights that have either been won or have been rendered redundant with the passage of time as new issues have come to the fore. The Republicans are in danger of becoming a retro-Party with a retro-ideology irrelevant to the needs and desires of ordinary Americans. Nostalgia for a misremembered past is not the basis for a successful electoral and governing strategy. Modernisers in the Party have got a roadmap for Republican Party renewal. Frum writes: ‘21st century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally-responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible.’ This vision for a renewed conservatism — not dissimilar to David Cameron’s conservatism in Britain or Angela Merkel’s Christian Democracy in Germany — will no doubt have multiple enemies: the demotic political commentators on FOX news; the vanguard of the Tea Party like the Koch Brothers, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz; or even those who are more sensitive to the importance of statecraft like establishment Republicans and look backwards to when Reagan was at the helm.
It is never wise to predict the future from the standpoint of the present, but I will give it a shot. The Republican Party’s prospects for 2016, whilst not certain, look bleak. In the same way as the 1980s produced a set of ideas and events controlled by institutions and individuals that allowed Republicans to create a climate of opinion to their own making, the 2010s look set for a period of Democratic hegemony. In short, it is Hillary’s for the taking… if she wants it!