February 4, 2012


The 2016 Election, Already Upon Us (DAVID LEONHARDT, 2/03/12, WSJ)

Whoever the candidates turn out to be, they will inevitably need to define themselves in relation to Mr. Obama, even if they don't say so. (After George Bush called for a "kinder and gentler" society in his 1988 Republican convention speech, Nancy Reagan reportedly asked, "Kinder and gentler than whom?")

Mr. Obama cast himself in 2008 as a more ambitious Democrat than Bill Clinton had been, one who wanted to begin a new era of American politics, as Ronald Reagan had. Mr. Obama may yet succeed, at least partly, if he can win re-election and cement the legislation of his first two years.

Ideologically, however, he has largely followed Mr. Clinton's left-center playbook, preferring a mix of market-based and government solutions (like health-insurance exchanges) to a more radical approach (like Medicare for all). "The Obama presidency is not one in which the Democratic Party has been transformed," said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton historian. "Instead, it has been four and maybe eight years in which the path of the '90s was solidified."

A central question for 2016 is whether the mostly cohesive stitching of the left and center, a feature of both the Clinton and Obama years, will last. If not, Democrats could find themselves in the sort of turmoil that long characterized the party -- and that afflicted Republicans in 2008 and again this year.

The transition from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney would be almost as minor as the one from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush was.  The GOP, at the national level, is no worse than a mildly Third Way party (as witness the choice of the architect of Romneycare) and at best a full-fledged Third Way party (as witness nearly everything W did and wished to do).  

Democrats, on the other hand, have largely reacted against even the mild Third Way tendencies of Bill Clinton.  Al Gore, bizarrely, ran against that successful legacy; John Kerry was an extremely retrograde Second Way figure; and they opted against another nominal Clinton in '08, though they got one in practice.  

Their 2016 primaries, attempting to choose a successor to President "Obamney," will likely come down to either a truly Third Way governor (they basically all are at this point) or a Second Way Senator. It would be great for the country--as well as their party--if the rank and file could finally accept that the politics of the former represents the future.  But, as we've also seen in Republican reaction against W and Labour reaction against Tony Blair, it's not easy for either the former party of the First Way nor that of the Second to accept reality.

Posted by at February 4, 2012 8:45 AM

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