Obamacare’s problems have taken a toll on the president’s job approval numbers. What is worse is that President Obama’s poll numbers are sinking even though the stock market is hitting new highs and the job market is slowly healing. Even the economy stays on the same path (or a little better), then this David Weigel article on the 2016 Democratic race should be about right. Democratic voters will likely be satisfied with a Hillary Clinton running as Obama’s heir with some attitudinizing about inequality to protect her left flank.
But this is where we should remember David Frum’s piece from last month. No, it is unlikely Ted Cruz will be elected president regardless of what happens (and if he did win, Cruz would probably adopt a different strategy than the one Frum describes), but the economy has been growing since the Summer of 2009. Clinton better hope that we avoid even a mild recession between now and the beginning of 2016. A recession will strengthen the case that President Obama was an economic failure even as he fights to protect his unpopular health care law.
If it is just the unpopularity of Obamacare, then the president and his allies can engage in trench warfare against his opponents and hope that their party’s demographic advantage will pull them through in 2016. It would be winning ugly, but everything to do with Obamacare (to start with Obama’s lies about opposing an individual purchase mandate when he first ran for president) has been about winning ugly.
The combination of Obamacare’s unpopularity and a recession that ended a weak recovery would be ideologically scrambling. Persuadables would tend to become more open to right-leaning critiques of Obama’s economic policies. Conservative arguments that Obama taxed too much, borrowed too much and imposed too much government control of health care would tend to have more force. That would only be part of the problem. Many liberals would be able to offer an internally coherent critique that the president didn’t
spend invest enough, did not tax the rich enough, and did not impose enough government control over health care. Clinton would face the combination of persuadable voters looking right and liberal voters looking to go even farther left. There might be an opening there if some Democratic politician was able to be a voice of that liberal discontent. I’m not sure that it would be Elizabeth Warren. She strikes me as both wooden and irritable. My sense is that Team Clinton would tear her apart. Maybe some former governor or senator would see a chance to reinvent themselves.
Ross Douthat writes that “The rule in recent Democratic primaries is that cultural affinities trump ideological ones”. That might be Clinton’s best chance at avoiding a damaging intraparty split even if there is a recession. If they want to gain support outside the leftist segments of the upper-middle-class, any insurgent would have to try to avoid seeming like too much of an anti-Obama insurgency. It would be tough to thread that needle well enough to beat Clinton for the nomination. But a left insurgency could force Clinton to go farther left than she would want even as economic circumstances make it tougher for any Democrat to win. I wonder if she would have the discipline to avoid going substantively to the left (while making all kinds of sympathetic noises) and hope that the leftist insurgency would have such limited demographic appeal that it would not threaten her chance to get the nomination.