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The toughest question for 2016 Democratic presidential candidates

December 11, 2013, at 10:05 PM
 

2016 will be a weird election for the Democratic candidate, be the nominee Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, or a dude.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore faced a dilemma. How could he claim credit for contributing to the successes of the Clinton administration without embracing the scandal-tarnished president himself? He was too close to the center of the presidential drama of 1998, too personally offended by Clinton's personal mistakes, that it's easy to forgive him, in retrospect, for not finding it easy to compartmentalize. (He still, you know, won the most votes, so this needle was threaded.)

The Democratic nominee in 2016 will have the opposite challenge.

Obama will be personally popular. His policy legacy — what I'm calling the Obama Strategy — might not be popular enough to embrace.

So how would a Democratic nominee show voters a winning vision that does not tacitly repudiate the Obama administration?

One way to incorporate Obama's presidency into the narrative is to reach back to a metaphor that Obama's campaign used to describe how they built their electoral machine from scratch. "We had to build the plane as it was taking off the runway."

When Obama inherited the ship of state, an extremely complicated contraption, several engines were blown out and it was losing altitude, quickly. With difficulty, this first-time big-plane pilot managed to land. The plane hit the runway with a thud, dragging its belly along. It was painful, but it didn't disintegrate. Now he's rebuilding the plane.

The next president will fly it out and decide where to go. "It," of course, is the rebuilt aircraft influenced by the design of its former pilot. "It" is the series of polices, like the Affordable Care Act, environmental regulation, significantly reduced footprints in Afghanistan and Iraq, a peace process with Iran, and gay marriage (and much more) that will constraint the next president's freedom to choose where to navigate.

Let's get going. Or, to borrow a phrase from Michelle Obama, let's move. Let's get out of where we are and move to somewhere else. Obama arrested the decline and rebuilt a strong foundation. A Republican president will spend their first term either trying to destroy a just-rebuilt foundation, a base that, log by log, is quite popular, or he or she will build something else upon it.

The focus on results has a drawback. The leading potential Republican nominee, Chris Christie, will run on results. He'll run a similar campaign, one that doesn't have to embrace anything of Obama's at all. He can do this even if he embraces specific policies that are not popular. If his larger governing strategy resonates with a weary, skeptical public, it will be hard for Democrats to pick it apart, even though voters favor their individual solutions.

Note the distinction: Providing health insurance for all Americans is a policy. It is a popular policy. The Affordable Care Act is a strategy, a vehicle, to implement the policy. The ACA, and the tactics used to sell it to the public, are not popular. Republicans will run against Obama's strategy. And I suspect Democrats will, too. They'll say, obliquely, that Obama did the right things in the wrong way. That he learned to fight too late in his presidency. And they'll say that their experience — as a governor, a Clinton, a whatever — ensures that they'll do it the right way.

 

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