Two fearless predictions about the presidential race

The 2016 campaign heated up last week with the first official Republican candidate debates. There have also been some major developments on the Democratic side. Herewith a status report on what is shaping up as a messy brawl that could have far reaching consequences.

I. A muddled message - Three years ago, SAFE urged a vigorous Republican challenge to the big government agenda of the president and his party. A recent political ad deserves a real response, 8/6/12.

Imagine the potential traction of a Romney ad that made these points: (A) Darned right there are two very different plans for America [as stated in a Democratic ad], and (B) Smaller, more focused, less costly government is the best answer! Then drive the message home in Romney’s speeches, and push for some much needed changes in the way presidential debates are conducted.

No one seemed to be listening! Mitt Romney ran an uninspired campaign, the president was reelected, and the march towards ever bigger, more expansive, less cost effective government continued. No one can say what would have happened if our advice had been followed, but in our view it might have made a difference.

The GOP focused on attacking the administration’s policies in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections, rather than laying out a positive, forward-looking agenda. Speaker John Boehner did offer a five-point plan to reboot the US economy, but unlike the Contract with America in 1994 it lacked meaningful details. Fix our tax code – solve our spending problem - reform our legal system – rein in our regulatory system – improve our education system. Ho hum! The budget is on autopilot, and so are a lot of other things,
9/29/14.

Opinions about Speaker Boehner’s plan varied, but many conservatives (including us) felt that it was very bland and provided little reason to vote Republican except “trust us rather than them.”

Being vague may have been a smart strategy in 2014, and Republican candidates across the country did well on election night. Lacking a plan it is committed to implement, however, the GOP has been floundering ever since.

#Most of the legislation passed by a Republican-controlled Congress has served to further the administration’s objectives, e.g., enactment of the trade bill (
5/18/15) and Senate passage of a longer-term highway funding bill (8/3/15). Meanwhile, conservative proposals are being blocked by Senate filibusters and/or presidential veto threats.

What about furthering some conservative ideas, isn’t that why Americans entrusted Republicans with control of Congress? Amend GovCare instead of just talking about it - block the “amnesty” program for illegal immigrants – eliminate government funding for Planned Parenthood (in the wake of recent revelations about its activities).

The answer of Republican leaders in Congress always seems to be, however, that Democratic opposition can’t be overcome in this particular case, and/or now is not the time to fight the battle. GOP leadership may look to keep Planned Parenthood out of spending fight, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner,
8/5/15.

. . . the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, a matter of days after the Senate and House return from the August recess. At that point, [Senator John] Cornyn said, the Senate is likely to take up a short-term funding measure, and it may not include any language to strip funding from Planned Parenthood. *** [In any case,] "there will be no government shutdown. We were elected as a majority to govern, not to shut down the government."

#Conservative angst and the absence of a coherent GOP agenda may have contributed to the emergence of a bumper crop of Republican presidential candidates with a wide range of backgrounds and ideas. Current political leaders (senators and governors) – former political leaders (governors) – a former business executive, a retired neurosurgeon, and a flamboyant billionaire. Republicans deserve Trump, Ramesh Ponnuru, bloombergview.com,
8/5/15.

The good news is that this field is loaded with talent. The bad news is that months will be required to winnow it down to a manageable pool for selection of the Republican nominee; meanwhile, little progress will be made in developing a policy agenda. And there is a risk that Donald Trump will get mad when he doesn’t get the nomination and launch a third party bid, thereby undercutting the Republican candidate.

II. The first GOP debates - In recognition of his front-runner status, Donald Trump occupied a central podium at the prime time debate on August 6 in Cleveland, Ohio. Nine other candidates shared the stage with Trump, and there had been a “happy hour” debate earlier for seven additional candidates.

From a broadcasting standpoint, these events were a huge success – indeed, the prime time debate shattered viewership records. 24 million watch GOP debate on Fox News; most watched cable news program ever, Chris Ariens, adweek.com,
8/7/15.

A whopping 24 million watched the debate from 9 p.m. ET to just past 11 p.m. ET. *** This is now the highest non-sports cable program of all time, the highest-rated cable news program of all time, and Fox News’s most-watched program ever. *** The 5 p.m. ET debate, with the 7 lower-tier candidates did very well for Fox News too, drawing 6.1 million total viewers.

Many observers praised the way in which Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace ran the prime time debate. Probing questions (focused on chinks in the candidates’ armor), limited time for candidates to speak (one minute for responses, 30 seconds for closing statements). A foxy, rowdy Republican debate, Frank Bruni, New York Times[!],
8/6/15.

They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has. It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.

Some conservative observers were less enthusiastic, perhaps because they had hoped to see their favorites fare better. GOP debate winners: Trump, Cruz, Huckabee, Christie; Dick Morris, Newsmax.com,
8/7/15.

The other big loser was FoxNews. Their anti-Trump bias was obvious. The questions were way too negative and often too personal. The network, which is built on being fair to conservatives, was manifestly unfair to them tonight.

Others spun the results differently, declaring that moderate candidates were the real winners in the prime time debate. There was also near universal agreement that Carly Fiorina won the earlier debate. “First debate – postgame,” Rich Galen, townhall.com,
8/7/15.

Our main criticism of the prime time debate (but not the one run by Bill Hemmer and Martha McCallum) would be that the moderators seemed to think it was about them versus the candidates. Nearly 1/3 of the debate time was chewed up by the moderators talking, and their tone during the introductory and closing segments seemed excessively self-congratulatory.

Also, perhaps inevitably, the debates did very little to educate Americans about policy issues. Economic debate, Larry Kudlow, townhall.com,
8/8/15.

With a record 24 million people watching the GOP debate, you'd think there would have been a lot more time spent on the most important issue of the day: the economy. Look at any poll. Jobs and the economy are always at the top of the list. But there was barely a mention of this on Thursday night.

And to the extent policy issues did come up, the candidates seemed more prone to slam the other side’s ideas than to explain what they would do differently. We lost track of the number of candidates who vowed to rescind the current president’s executive orders on day one, etc.

Furious at being called out for demeaning comments about women, Donald Trump unleashed a series of vituperative attacks on Megyn Kelly after the debate. As a result, he was disinvited from appearing at a major conservative event in Atlanta. Trump sets off conservative backlash, Byron York, Washington Examiner,
8/8/15.

"I have tried to give a great deal of latitude to Donald Trump in his run for the presidency," [RedState founder Erick] Erickson said in a statement late Friday night. "But there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross. Decency is one of those lines."

Apparently, Trump was not greatly missed at the event. Amid Trump mess, GOP candidates shine at RedState, Byron York, Washington Examiner,
8/9/15.

A parade of Republican presidential candidates marched through — Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker — and not one of them bombed. Not one underwhelmed, disappointed, or mailed it in. Instead, the GOP hopefuls were sharp, fired-up, and focused, even as the embarrassments of the latest Trump controversy threatened to overshadow it all. Why were they so good? Here's a theory: The candidates prepared like crazy for the recent Cleveland debate, honing their arguments, finding the most effective way to express their positions. Most of that material was never used — there was no time, given the constraints of a big-field debate. Plus, they were terrified of making a mistake in front of the huge Fox News audience. So now, with all that preparation, and with more time — and without the crushing pressure and nerves of the debate — they're letting go with their newly-polished best stuff.

Time will tell, but don’t be surprised if Trump is not a participant in the next GOP debate (Sept. 16, Simi Valley, California, CNN).

III. Leading Democratic candidate falters – Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic candidate. Her principal rival to date has been Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist who is attracting crowds and polling well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Most observers don’t see Sanders as a serious threat, but it has been suggested that his participation in the race could spark greater interest. The non-Clinton alternative for Democrats, Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, 7/6/15.

I’m not of the school that believes competition for competition’s sake is always a good thing. But Sanders has an appeal for younger, more liberal, more idealistic Democrats that Clinton presently lacks. If she competes for these voters — and learns to connect with them — she will have a much better chance of winning the White House.

Nevertheless, Clinton has not seemed eager to engage with Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and the other declared candidates.

She missed an AFL-CIO forum in Iowa on August 6 (which the other Democratic candidates attended), reportedly due to a scheduling conflict. Washington Examiner,
8/4/15.

And presumably with her approval, a schedule of six Democratic debates (starting with an Oct. 13 debate in Nevada) has been set that the O’Malley campaign views as a farce. Democratic Party releases primary debate schedule for 2016, Jake Miller, CBS News,
8/6/15.

The schedule they have proposed does not give voters - nationally, and especially in early states - ample opportunity to hear from the Democratic candidates for president. If anything, it seems geared toward limiting debate and facilitating a coronation, not promoting a robust debate and primary process.

The ballgame may be about to change, however, due to three unexpected (and to some extent related) setbacks for the Clinton campaign.

FIRST, there has been a series of revelations about Clinton’s use of a private e-mail account and her own server for the conduct of official business while she was secretary of state. And before the archived e-mails were turned over to the State Department, some 30 thousand e-mails deemed to be personal rather than official in nature were destroyed.

Attempts to minimize these actions misfired, in part because some of Clinton’s initial statements turned out to be inaccurate, and her deviance from the normal protocols has become a source of embarrassment to the administration. US intel fears hundred of secrets leaked in Hillary’s private e-mails, John Solomon & S.A. Miller, Washington Times,
7/30/15.

The U.S. intelligence community is bracing for the possibility that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email account contains hundreds of revelations of classified information from spy agencies and is taking steps to contain any damage to national security, according to documents and interviews Thursday.

Ominously, from Clinton’s standpoint, the Department of Justice seems to have developed an interest in the matter. Although criminal charges are not likely to result, law enforcement inquiries can’t very well be dismissed as partisan attacks. FBI investigates Hillary Clinton’s server, Sarah Westwood, Washington Examiner,
8/5/15.

FBI agents are probing the private server arrangement Hillary Clinton established to shield her government communications, as well as the fact that her attorney is still in possession of records now known to be classified.

SECOND, Clinton’s polling results have been eroding, especially her favorability ratings. Supporters tend to blame this trend on the private e-mail situation, which has supposedly been blown out of proportion, but Clinton’s campaign style may also be a factor. Hillary Clinton confronts her negatives, Gabriel Debenedetti & Annie Karni, politico.com,
8/5/15.

Her lead against Sen. Bernie Sanders is shrinking. And, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal polling, Clinton’s favorability ratings are also dropping. From June through July, she’s gone from 44 percent favorability to 37 percent — a shift that saw her net favorable score go from +4 to -11 — and Quinnipiac surveys show a similar fall, from 45 percent to 40 percent.

THIRD, having earlier given the impression of supporting Clinton as the Democratic candidate, the president may now be having second thoughts. At the least, the White House seems OK with the idea of Vice President Joe Biden throwing his hat in the ring. Daily Press Briefing, Josh Earnest,
8/3/15.

. . . ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Democratic voters all across the country to decide who they believe would be the best Democratic nominee for President. And the President will have the opportunity to vote in the Illinois primary, but at this point, I don’t have any public endorsement decisions that the President’s made.

Here are some reasons why the president might support a Biden candidacy. He would obviously prefer to endorse a winner, and might like Biden’s chances better at this point. There are some old scores between the president and the Clintons, which he might enjoy settling. And several controversial matters (“sleazy dealings, donations and paid speeches on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and the massive bungling of Benghazi, and now the constant scandals surrounding the secret email servers”) could be resolved in “one fell swoop.” Obama holds trump card in Democratic primary, Charles Hurt, Washington Times,
7/28/15.

Also, having his vice president run as his handpicked successor might seem like the next best thing to running for a third term himself. Consider the following:

•For years, the president has spoken about his aspiration to emulate Ronald Reagan by bringing about a longer-term change in political attitudes rather than merely winning a few political battles. (And Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, of course, not by someone who had left the administration.) How Barack Obama wants to be the Ronald Reagan of the Left, Jon Ward, yahoo.com,
2/6/15.

•On a recent trip to Africa, the president publicly commented that he could probably win a third term if it wasn’t against the law (22nd Amendment). Could Obama run for a third term? J.V. DeLong, Forbes,
8/3/15.

•In attempting to push several controversial projects over the goal line, the president has resorted to bashing his opponents in an exceptionally negative way. For example:

They’ll claim we need to slash our investments in clean energy, it's a waste of money -- even though they’re happy to spend billions of dollars a year in subsidizing oil companies. They’ll claim this plan will kill jobs -- even though our transition to a cleaner energy economy has the solar industry, to just name one example, creating jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy. They’ll claim this plan is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes -- even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting healthcare and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs. Remarks about the Clean Power Plan, White House, 8/3/15.

Unfortunately, we’re living through a time in American politics where every foreign policy decision is viewed through a partisan [prism], evaluated by headline-grabbing sound bites, and so before the ink was even dry on this deal, before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition. *** It’s those [Iranian] hardliners chanting “Death to America” who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican Caucus. Speech in support of the Iran nuclear deal, American University,
8/5/15.

•The president is reportedly encouraging supporters to follow the GOP nominating process so they can hold Republican candidates “accountable.” Obama mocks GOP candidates’ “bad ideas,” urges Dems to watch debates, Kellan Howell, Washington Times,
8/4/15.

In an email sent to supporters on Tuesday, Mr. Obama predicted the 10 candidates at the main debate will promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, challenge the “science behind climate change” and reverse course on immigration reform and marriage equality. “They’re going to deny all of the progress we’ve made together over these past six years,” Mr. Obama wrote.

All this assumes Vice President Joe Biden will want to run for president, which given his age, two previous attempts (1987 and 2008), and the recent loss of his son should not be taken for granted. There has been a lot of recent buzz about the matter, however, and Biden is expected to announce his decision by “summer’s end.” Biden campaign facing hurdles; If he decides to make bid to be president, Joe Biden would start off playing catch up, Jonathan Starkey & Nicole Gaudiano, News Journal, 8/8/15.

It’s just a guess, but we think Biden will go for it.
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