LONDON – The 2016 presidential campaign is being driven by two politicians whose names are not on any ballot: President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The Republican race is being shaped by conservative rage at Obama. The Democratic race by liberal wariness of Clintonism.
Seven years of Obama has driven Republicans over the edge. They despise this president and everything he stands for. Obama is the ultimate conservative nightmare — a big-government liberal who’s weak on foreign policy. And black.
What’s shaping the Republican race is the fury of rank-and-file Republican voters at their own party. Republicans have taken control of Congress — and for what? They still can’t stop Obama. He vetoes what the Republican Congress can pass, like repeal of Obamacare. And he ignores Congress and acts on his own authority to implement what they won’t pass.
Based on two decades of polling by the Pew Research Center, The New York Times reports, “Republican unhappiness with their own party during the Obama presidency has exceeded any previous level of self-party dissatisfaction among either Democrats or Republicans.” Rage at the Republican leadership has produced two brutally anti-establishment contenders, Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both current front-runners for the GOP nomination.
What we are seeing now is a split. The Republican Party establishment is anxiously embracing Trump. The conservative ideological establishment is angrily rejecting Trump and promoting Cruz. What’s the difference?
Republican Party leaders see Trump as more flexible and pragmatic. “We’ve got to make deals,” Trump said at a campaign rally last week. “We don’t want to sign executive orders. We want to make good deals.” Deal-making is something professional politicians understand.
Cruz, on the other hand, is totally inflexible. To him, deals are sell-outs. Cruz believes that shutting down the federal government and putting the full faith and credit of the United States at risk are good negotiating tactics. His willingness to go to the brink horrifies professional politicians.
But it thrills conservative intellectuals. They want a leader who is completely committed to principle. That’s not Trump. The Weekly Standard called Trump “a confidence man.” The National Review published an entire issue against Trump. He’s ideologically incoherent. He has no problem with big government — a wall on the border, mass deportations — as long as he’s in charge. The only thing Trump truly believes in is himself.
Conservatives admire Cruz’s “no compromise” approach. Republican politicos hate it. They think it will doom them at the polls. “With Cruz, you’re looking at a Republican Party that wouldn’t win the vote of a young person, a young woman or minority for a generation,” one Republican consultant warned.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promotes what she calls a “sensible, achievable agenda.” That doesn’t exactly get liberals’ juices flowing. Neither did her husband’s record as president. He got elected at a time when Reaganism was still in the ascendancy, and he moderated the Democratic Party’s “big government” image in order to make Democrats more competitive. It worked.
But this is a different time. Liberals today do not feel they have to reach an accommodation with free-market capitalism. Not after the financial crash, the Great Recession and years of wage stagnation and rising inequality.
Bill Clinton’s signature policy achievements never had much appeal to liberals. Free trade, welfare reform, a balanced budget and Wall Street deregulation were all passed with more support from Republicans than from Democrats. Many liberals look at Hillary Clinton and see Wall Street and “triangulation.”
Older Democrats revere Bill Clinton and see him as a president who delivered “good times.” Many younger Democrats don’t share those recollections. After all, Clinton has been out of the White House for more than 15 years. For younger voters, Clinton’s “good times” means something different.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders electrifies liberals. He’s conviction. Hillary Clinton is calculation. Especially when she shifts to the left on issues like trade. For younger liberals, socialism is not a scare word. They didn’t live through the Cold War. Even the fact that Sanders is not a registered Democrat doesn’t bother them. Many young liberals identify as independents, too.
If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be an instant media sensation: the Clinton crusher. He’s hoping the momentum of the two victories would carry him to the Democratic nomination, especially as he becomes better known to minority Democratic voters.
Commentators are constantly drawing attention to parallels between the 2016 Democratic race and the 2008 race between Obama and Hillary Clinton. In some ways, however, the stronger parallel is the primary showdown between Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen.Gary Hart of Colorado in 1984. Mondale was the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party establishment. Hart was the advocate of a “new politics” for a new generation.
But there’s one big difference. Hart was thwarted by a single question, borrowed from a TV commercial: “Where’s the beef?” Sanders is less vulnerable to that kind of criticism. When it comes to policy ideas, Sanders is pretty beefy.
Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.