Which party will emerge from its gathering storm?

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Michael Barone

Each of our two (by world standards) ancient political parties seems to be facing a gathering storm.

Part of the gathering storm for Republicans is the candidacy of, and the persistent lead in most primary polls for, Donald Trump. He is given to outlandish proposals and lacks the temperamental ballast and government experience general election voters usually seek in a president.

As a confident (overconfident?) autodidact, he gains no benefit from the serious policy thinking of many congressional Republicans and conservative think tanks. Candidates who take them seriously are, for the moment anyway, overshadowed.

The Republicans’ congressional party has been in disarray as well, with party rebels prompting the resignation of Speaker John Boehner. His successor Paul Ryan has shown a steady hand, but could face more rebellion down the road — and more Democratic charges that the squabbling makes Republicans incapable of governing responsibly.

Republicans’ problems come in part because they have become over the decades a larger, more populist party. GOP supporters no longer look like they all belong to the same country club. Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated voters, angry at the direction of the nation and delighted with their candidate’s defiance of political correctness.

Religious conservatives also make up a major Republican bloc these days; 44 percent of Mitt Romney’s November 2012 voters described themselves as white evangelical Protestants. They still strongly oppose same-sex marriage but many other Republicans, recognizing it has majority support nationally, want to drop the issue, to judge from a recent Annenberg focus group in the target state of Colorado. Holding together a large and diverse party, as Democrats have shown over the years, is a messy and sometimes offputting business.

The gathering storm for the Democrats may be less visible to mainstream media, but it looms nevertheless. It was apparent in last week’s House vote on pausing the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, when 47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans to form a veto-proof majority against the president’s position.

In his press conference in Antalya, Turkey, President Obama intimated that those who oppose his policy of welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees, in disregard of his perfunctory assurances that they could be adequately screened, were un-American bigots. But a briefing of House Democrats on those procedures by administration officials was reportedly what moved many members to switch and oppose the administration position.

That’s evidence that there is a rational basis for the apprehensions of the 53 percent who told a Bloomberg News survey that they oppose admitting the refugees. Democratic politicians who have to face voters perceive political peril in taking a stand supported by only 28 percent in that poll.

There’s peril as well for his party if Obama spends his last year, as he reportedly intends, advocating gun control measures. Especially after he and the party’s presidential candidates have expressed sympathy for the demands of the Black Lives Matter group.

Homicides and violent crimes have been surging this year in many cities, quite possibly because law enforcement has cut back on active policing techniques criticized by Black Lives Matter. But gun control is not necessarily voters’ preferred response. Homicides in Washington, D.C., have spiked 58 percent in 2015, and a Washington Post poll showed that concern about crime has spiked upward as well. But a ban on gun ownership is supported by only 51 percent of its residents, 91 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2012. Surprisingly, 47 percent oppose such a ban.

The current rash of campus rebellions, with students hurling epithets at liberal administrators and threatening violence against other students, could hurt Democrats as well, making promises of “free college” look less attractive.

It’s hard for a party to win a third consecutive presidential term. In the last 65 years, it has happened only once, when George H. W. Bush won in 1988. Richard Nixon and Al Gore came close to doing so in 1960 and 2000, but failed.

In all three cases, the incumbent president had majority job approval. In all three, America, despite facing challenges, seemed to be in a strong position in the world. Not so today. Obama’s job approval is currently 44 percent, and it’s lower than that on foreign policy.

Republicans have a chance of emerging from their gathering storm with an attractive nominee and plausible policies. Democrats seem likely to emerge from theirs with Hillary Clinton and policies dictated by an incumbent contemptuous of public opinion on issues like Syrian refugees and gun control — and a world that seems to be spinning out of control.

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