Imagine a purely hypothetical election. An incumbent president who is despised with unmatched wrath by his party base is swept out of office in disgrace after his administration’s pathological capacity for deceit is exposed. The next election sees a populist, seemingly moderate member of the other party from an infrequently won state elected on the promise to speak honestly and forthrightly to Americans. Partisans of the new president celebrate, believing the deep-seated ideological and systemic problems within their coalition have been papered over by a new chance at power, while the other party appears on the verge of being taken over by its most ideological wing.
The year is not 2016, as the reader may expect. It is 1976, when the stink of Watergate rendered Republicans so perpetually toxic for four years that America turned away from the infant Ford administration and elected Jimmy Carter. Ford, damaged by a primary challenge from the seemingly unelectable cowboy Ronald Reagan, is cut off inexorably from his party’s base, and as the 1980 race looms large, Carter looks poised for a landslide against what is probably his most ideologically unfriendly opponent.
The landslide came, but as we all know, it was not Reagan who got buried. Indeed, Reagan’s supposedly ideological, unelectable worldview ended up realigning the country, to the point where the best defense that Christopher Hitchens – at the time, a committed leftist – could offer in 1985 was that 1980 was merely “the election that Watergate postponed.”
Flash forward to now, and let me paint a similar picture of the future: Republicans, having just been drubbed in two successive elections, once when running a lukewarm moderate, and the second time running a nominee who, despite his personal moderation, ran on the most ideological platform his party has ever endorsed, are desperate for good news. Like clockwork (or rather, like Watergate), the good news comes in the form of Obamacare, which in just one short year threatens to derail the entire Obama presidency. The insult of Obamacare, coming on top of a presidential record that makes Nixon’s look positively transparent, re-galvanizes the Republican Party as Obama leaves office in disgrace. Hillary Clinton, like Ford before her, tries to tap into the zeitgeist of her increasingly ideological party, but fails, resulting in the election of unlikely conservative hero Chris Christie.
But Christie’s first term is marred by the aftershocks of Obama’s, and unlike with Obama, the press is not so forgiving. Soon, Christie becomes caricatured as a bully, more interested in rewarding his rich friends than helping the poor. The demographics that elected him at first, having been disgusted with Obamacare, sour on him almost instantly. Still, Republicans comfort themselves, they are in a strong position going into 2020, when Democrats appear poised to nominate their most ideologically extreme candidate in a generation – Elizabeth Warren. Surely the only possible result can be a Christie landslide?
Naturally, some details in this picture may change. It is far from certain that Christie will be the Republican nominee in 2016, for instance, nor is it certain that the Clinton machine has lost all its juice in the event that Hilary is nominated. However, in the event that the Obama administration’s many Nixonesque failings hand Republicans the White House in 2016, the broader trends of history still suggest that their first term should be treated as borrowed time. And while Elizabeth Warren may not be the candidate of 2020, it is nearly unquestionable that the Warren-style left is the Democrats’ only out in a world where moderate liberalism has been so tainted by Obamacare. Faced with Warrenism, Republicans will have to make a choice: Will they drag the country back towards conservatism, or will 2020 become “the election that Obamacare postponed?”
As of now, it appears that Republicans are courting their own Carter-style defeat. No stronger evidence for this exists than the interpretation of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ most recent poll showing millennial voters apparently souring on Obamacare so drastically that Republicans believe their electoral fortunes will soar. Unfortunately, the problem with this reading is that it is selective to the point of ridiculousness – almost as if those adhering to it had walked into a forest fire and remarked on how vibrant and stable the local ecology was based on a single clump of unburnt trees.
This reaction is understandable, despite its naivete. Yes, it is true that President Obama’s approval ratings among young voters have plunged from 52 percent to 41 percent, and at least 56 percent of young people now disapprove of Obamacare, even when it is called by its less toxic name.
Those are the unburnt trees. But drill down deeper into the data, and the smell of smoke and the screams of dying animals intrude on the consciousness. For instance, while approval of Democrats in Congress has fallen by five points from the mediocre 40 percent to a worrisome 35 percent, approval of Republicans in Congress has fallen from a critical 27 percent to a suicide-inducing 19 percent, below President George W. Bush’s final approval rating on leaving office. Unsurprisingly, Republican Party registration lags Democrats by 6 points among voters aged 18-24, and by an unbelievable 16 points among voters aged 25-29.
The heat starts to become unbearable and the smoke starts to clog the eyes when an issue completely untouched upon by the press – student debt – enters the picture. According to the poll results, 42 percent of all millennials suffer from student loan debt, including 40 percent of Republicans. Moreover, 57 percent of millennials (the same as the rate for Republicans) view student debt for young people as a major problem, with only 26 percent disagreeing.
And unlike the average Fox News viewer, those millennials are not likely to blame the government, or themselves, for this issue. Rather, a solid 42 percent place blame on colleges and universities, with only 30 percent blaming the federal government. In contrast, only 11 percent blame students for the debt issue.
And when the “Buffett Rule,” another issue left untouched by the press, is introduced, the Republican Party may as well have been trapped by burning logs. Polling shows 69 percent of young people, including 57 percent of Republicans, favor the so-called “Buffett Rule,” requiring people making over $1 million a year to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.
This is the good news for Republicans? If so, it’s a poison pill. Yes, Obama and his health care law have become more toxic than they were, but disapproval of a single policy and a single politician do not equate to disagreement with the project of liberalism. Especially not when one of liberalism’s totems – taxation of the wealthy – is a project supported even by 57 percent of millennial Republicans, and when one of the main issues young people care about – student debt – is one where Republicans’ only touchstone is often a formless anti-college resentment that treats students cheated by bad schools as entitled, hedonistic, stupid brats.
Can Republicans escape these problems and put out the forest fire? Time will tell. But to give them a spur, here’s a sobering reminder of one fact: There is one Democrat for whom the abatement of student debt and the taxation of the wealthy unify as factors in their mass appeal.
That politician? None other than the ideological, unelectable Elizabeth Warren. And if Republicans go into future elections unprepared to compete with her on the same terms, then a prescient quote comes to mind:
“There you go again.”