Looking ahead to 2016

Thanks to the constant hum of cable news, the speculation on the 2016 presidential election is constant. Be it Fox, MSNBC or CNN, the drumbeat of idle speculation never ends. Straw polls, intense scrutiny of who’s up and who’s down reflect the vacuous nature of the media. Barack Obama is a mere two months into his second term and reporters are transfixed about an election just short of four years away.

Better to emphasize those issues that very well may determine who is a victor. Not likely the list of issues bandied about currently, such as gun control, gay marriage or climate change. Even the economy may not supersede the concern of average citizens over the kind of society they desire to live in. Barry Goldwater asked his audiences in 1964, “What kind of country do you want to have?” This general question is more likely to dominate rather than the micro-issues currently highlighted.

Despite the calls for “no labels” by Mark Mackimmon and Joe Manchin, the differences between the parties have never been sharper, Libertarians advocate leaving Americans alone, but this also means a shrinking safety-net. Liberals desire a renewed commitment to Medicare, Social Security and education. For some moderates all answers lay in the middle, but the two factions most dominant in both parties have staked out strong positions. In many respects this is healthy and not corrosive as some have suggested.

The problem with seeking consensus is that it involves papering over real differences. Go back to the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ostensibly Congress and the president agreed to measure growth in government. Sure, the Federal Highway Act was passed in 1956, and the St. Lawrence Seaway and expansion of Social Security marked the beneficial cooperation between White House and Congress. However, the debt was less, the United States dominated trade and the dollar stood unassailable.

For some conservatives in the late 1950s such as Goldwater this represented “a dime store New Deal.” They were not pleased with GOP cooperation. Such figures as Clarence Manion, Robert Welch and others helped form a new right-wing response. Sure enough some of their fears were realized. That “dime store New Deal” mushroomed into a full blown Great Society with expansion into healthcare and education. Perhaps conservatives are quite aware of the possible price of collaboration.

For liberals and Democrats in general any perceived retreat is considered unthinkable. The late 1970s represent their greatest fears. Then Edward Kennedy helped deregulate trucking and other industries, undercutting many staples of the New Deal. Jimmy Carter, by no means a liberal as president, pleased conservatives in his first two years more than his base. This “moderate” approach split the party and helped usher in Ronald Reagan. As with Republicans in the 1960s, the price of cooperation was too high.

So fears are real when it comes to bipartisanship. New Republicans could improve on immigration, and the argument that it is a fools’ errand is somewhat blunted by the election of 2004, in which George W. Bush received 45 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Of course it may have been a fluke but the idea that support is completely out of reach is at least debatable. Democrats and entitlements are trickier, given that their fortunes lay more in government expansion than retraction. Both, however, are risky for the parties.

True enough, Democrats usually prefer to vote for the genuine article and so do Republicans. To be lectured to about seeking common ground assumes that the voter does not know what they want. But as V.O. Key noted, there is “a responsible electorate” that is fairly well-informed. Perhaps the current stalemate reflects what they want – a spirited debate and inaction.