Spending Issues Will Be Key
As we head into 2013 it, already seems apparent that presidential elections don’t mean as much as they used. President Barack Obama won a second term in November and Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives. In the old days, say 30 or 40 years ago, that might have meant the losing party would stand down to an extent and let the winners set the political agenda, biding its time until the next election. But in our current political climate, the campaigns never end and an election becomes merely the latest skirmish in a never-ending battle for political supremacy in which neither side can ever fully claim an all-out victory.
No matter the outcome on the so-called fiscal cliff debate, government spending will remain a key point of contention in 2013. Republicans, especially those elected with Tea Party help, believe their main mission in coming to Washington is to reduce the size of government and the election result in November isn’t going to change that. House Republicans, in particular, feel much more threatened by the prospect of a conservative challenger in a Republican primary election back home than they are by some faceless national constituency demanding that both sides work together. So the conservative faction that is heart and soul of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives will do what it has to do to make sure that conservative constituents back home are happy.
Yes, President Obama won a second term, thanks in large part to a skilled re-election campaign and some major mistakes on the part of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. But you won’t hear even Democrats crowing about some imagined mandate from the results. And for most Americans, 2012 turned out to be a choice election where staying with the status quo seemed less risky than going with the flawed Republican nominee, Romney.
So Mr. Obama was always going to have a challenge getting the country excited about a second term, especially when a little less than half of the voters supported the other guy. That challenge is enormously more complicated now in the wake of the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and the ongoing battle over taxes and spending that apparently will remain the key political struggle much as it was in 2012.
The Coming Gun Debate
The Newtown tragedy has energized gun control activists to mobilize and demand action early in Mr. Obama’s second term, a prospect that brings with it high political risk. Since the early 1990s, the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association has held the upper hand politically, culminating in 2004 when Congress made a feeble attempt to renew the expiring assault weapons ban put into place in 1994. As the NRA and other pro-gun groups have indicated lately, they’re ready for another battle over any new initiatives on gun control. That would include any attempt to re-impose the assault weapons ban, firm up background checks on gun sales or any effort aimed at keeping guns away from the mentally disturbed.
But the longer the debate drags on and the further away we get from the Newtown tragedy, the more likely it is that the advantage will drift back toward the pro-gun forces whenever Congress decides to take up the issue. The gun lobby is especially confident they can defeat new gun control efforts in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where many members from pro-gun districts in the South, Midwest and Mountain West will never give much in the way of compromise on the gun debate.
Prospects for Immigration Reform
This is an area that holds perhaps the greatest promise of cooperation between the two parties in the year ahead. Democrats will make a bigger push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 because they benefited so much from Hispanic support in the November election. At the same time a number of Republicans will be clamoring for a different approach on immigration given how poorly they did with Hispanic voters in 2012 and the prospects for even more defeats in the years to come without trimming the Democrat’s huge advantage with minority voters.
The two sides diverge somewhat on whether the path to legalization should result in citizenship, as many Hispanic activists would like, or simply legalization of their status inside the U.S., a path many Republicans prefer. Either way, the Republicans are much more likely to engage in a debate about immigration reform in the wake of the election. One of the things that hurt Mitt Romney badly last year was the tone of the Republican primary debates on immigration that made several of the Republican presidential contenders sound extreme on immigration, something voters remembered when it came time to cast their ballots in November. In fact, of all the issues that will come up this year this one might have the best chance of actually bringing the two parties together.
Jockeying for 2016
Republicans seem headed for a period of soul-searching and reflection in the New Year following their election defeats in November. Inevitably, that leads to speculation about who might be interested in running for president four years from now. I think the early discussion will focus on three people—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Christie burnished his image with moderates and maybe even a few Democrats when he toured storm-devastated areas along the New Jersey coast with President Obama and praised his role in the recovery. Of course, those same actions upset conservatives who felt Christie’s praise and willingness to be seen with the president helped Mr. Obama in the final days of the election campaign when Mitt Romney was struggling to break through. So Christie may have some fence-mending to do with fellow Republicans, but right now I can’t think of too many possible Republican White House contenders who would potentially have the kind of appeal to moderate swing voters that Christie would.
Marco Rubio has roots in the Tea Party movement and could generate support from Hispanic voters should he decide to run in 2016. But Rubio also comes across as a fairly cautious politician and some Republicans might see him as better suited as someone’s vice presidential running mate in four years’ time.
Jeb Bush is heading for almost elder statesman status within the Republican Party. Even so, he probably would generate some excitement among the party establishment and big money donors if he gets interested in running in the next election. But to me there’s always been a question whether he really wants to be president or would he be running to fulfill some sort of family destiny. Some hardcore conservatives might resist him, fearing another Mitt Romney who pays lip service to the right then abandons them later on.
But Jeb Bush’s biggest obstacle, if he runs, still might be the last name he shares with his brother, former president George W. Bush. It still amazes me that as recently as the November election, many voters were still blaming the former president for the country’s economic woes even though he’d been out of office for four years. Still Jeb Bush might be one of the few Republicans who could unite the party establishment, economic conservatives and social conservatives, and still offer at the least the potential of drawing some Hispanic support as he did when he was governor of Florida.