The incumbent in the room: the real challenge facing the democrats

The first debate between prospective Democratic candidates for President took place last Tuesday, and much space has been devoted to post-debate analysis of the candidates themselves: who made the strongest points, who had the best lines, who won, who lost.

But, a more interesting side to the whole affair comes from taking a wider view. Witness the following statements made by the candidates during the debate, and see if you notice the pattern:


  • Lincoln Chafee: “I want to address the income inequality, close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I want to address climate change, a real threat to our planet. And I believe in prosperity through peace. I want to end these wars.”


  • Martin O’Malley: “Our middle class is shrinking. Our poor families are becoming poorer, and 70 percent of us are earning the same, or less than we were 12 years ago. We need new leadership, and we need action. The sort of action that will actually make wages go up again for all American families.”


  • Bernie Sanders: “Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. African-American youth unemployment is 51 percent. Hispanic youth unemployment is 36 percent.”


  • Hillary Clinton: “My mission as president will be to raise incomes for hard-working middle-class families and to make sure that we get back to the basic bargain I was raised with.”


  • Jim Webb: “We need a national political strategy for our economy, for our social policy, for social justice, and, by the way, for how you run and manage the most complex bureaucracy in the world, which is the federal government.”


It’s the age-old message: Things are bad right now, but if you elect me–they’ll be better. It’s a simple message, but an effective one — when delivered by the party not currently in power. It has a proven history; since presidential term limits were constitutionally mandated in 1945, there has only been one instance of an “honorary third term” (where the President’s party retains the White House following a second term). This occurred in 1988, when Republican George Bush was elected to succeed Reagan.

Putting aside the merits of any particular candidate, or the policy proposals of either party, the Republicans have the historical edge in the 2016 election, in part because their message to the voters is so simple:

  1. The Republican candidate is the answer to all your problems.
  2. Your problems are caused by the Democrat in office.

The message has been used, successfully, in nearly every election cycle since the imposition of term limits. In 1948 President Truman was re-elected, representing Democrats, followed by:

1952: Republican (Eisenhower), 2 terms

1960: Democrat (Kennedy), assassinated and succeeded by Johnson, who won re-election

1968: Republican (Nixon), resigned during second term and succeeded by Ford

1976: Democrat (Carter), 1 term

1980: Republican (Reagan), 2 terms

1988: Republican (G.H.W. Bush), 1 term

1992: Democrat (Clinton), 2 terms

2000: Republican (G.W. Bush), 2 terms

2008: Democrat (Obama), 2 terms

The outlier is Reagan, who not only defeated an incumbent President but also succeeded in securing a third term via his Vice-President. This presages the Democrat messaging problem in the current election cycle, which will need to be more nuanced than that of the Republicans:

  1. The Democratic candidate is the answer to all your problems.
  2. You have problems despite the Democrat in office.
  3. Your problems are caused by the Republicans not in office because of reasons that we’ll explain.

Watching the debate helped me to understand how awkward the early messaging truly is. On the one hand, the candidates couldn’t say enough laudatory things about President Obama. This is good politics, no matter how they personally feel about President Obama. Any negative comments are sure to reflect negatively on the party as a whole, and likely damage the candidate more than can be gained from a cheap shot. On the other hand, they must make their case to the American voter.

In 1988 the case was simpler. The Reagan administration’s brushes with scandal (most notably the savings and loan crisis and the Iran-Contra affair) primarily concerned Cabinet officials and left he President unscathed. The President had broad public support following a landslide re-election, and at the time of the 1988 election his approval rating was nearing 60 percent. The only foreign entanglements during his presidency were rousing military successes like Grenada or showy and moving moments such as the Tear Down This Wall speech. The economy was booming, with interest rates and unemployment moving quickly downward. All Vice President Bush needed to do was convince the voter this would continue.

A similar case could have been made in 2000 with President Clinton’s strong economy and relative lack of foreign drama. However, there were two notable exceptions: the President was embroiled in a personal controversy that divided Americans and led to his impeachment, and Vice President Gore was much wonkier and more wooden than Vice President Bush had ever been. Yet, it was a historically close election with a memorable Florida recount needed to declare a winner.

The landscape in 2016 is cloudy by comparison. The economy is stronger than it was when President Obama took office, but still lagging behind expectations. The U.S. is embroiled in military conflict in the Middle East. The President’s approval rating just this week edged out of the 40s, where it had been mired for two years, and hit a 30-month high of 51 percent. Significantly, the presumptive Democratic nominee is not President Obama’s vice president (in keeping with the third term precedent) but, a former Secretary of State whose personal relationship with the President is reported to be frosty and adversarial. Former Secretary Clinton is not expected to propose similar policies. Her nearest challenger is a self-proclaimed socialist with no ties whatsoever to President Obama.

The first Democratic debate brought into stark relief just how difficult winning this argument will be for the Democrats. All the candidates mentioned the plight of the middle class, the stagnancy of wages, and the inequity of wealth distribution. All sought to affix blame to Congressional Republicans. This is not a winning strategy: All a Republican will need to do is point out the Democrats’ hold on Congress and the White House for the first two years of the Obama presidency as evidence that when Democrats are in charge they get nothing done.

The Democrats, then, will need to take an opposite tack and break from President Obama. They’ll need to follow the Republicans’ 2008 playbook and distance themselves from the two-term president with middling approval ratings who was bumbling through a number of foreign policy disasters.

That strategy was ultimately unsuccessful, but then history would argue that it was a losing battle to begin with. One notable distinction between 2016 and 2008: the economy is not currently in a freefall.

And 2016 Hillary Clinton is no 2008 Barack Obama.

Image Credits: CNN

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