Don't bury the elephant

Barack Obama may win the shutdown battle on points, but the 2016 fate of his party—and hence of the GOP as well—will be determined by his overall second-term performance. And, while it’s too early for definitive assessments, the president’s isn’t looking like a man in control of events. Indeed, as I have noted in these spaces previously, his reelection margin—just 3.68 percentage points—reflected a performance only barely in the category of “eligible for rehire.” Only three presidents were elected a second time by smaller margins, and all had disastrous second terms (Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush). That is not the kind of victory that puts significant wind into the sails of a second-term presidency, as we’re seeing with Obama today.

But if this is grounds for a measure of optimism on the part of Republicans today, it is a kind of default optimism that shouldn’t generate much of a glow in their hearts or expectations. That’s because the view that presidential elections hinge on incumbent performance is a double-edged sword. A faulty performance by Obama might sweep the GOP back into power, but if the victorious Republican president can’t pull off a successful performance of his own, his party will be right back in the wilderness. And here’s where the Republican Party has ample cause for concern, as reflected in its performance on the shutdown confrontation—and prospects for even more ominous behavior in the looming debt-limit standoff.

In the case of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for example, they didn’t merely gain office through the failed policies of their predecessors. Each in turn transformed the political landscape by creating new coalitions born of new political fault lines. Nixon brought the South into the GOP fold for the first time since the Civil War by pulling in the up-for-grabs Wallace vote of 1968, which was 13.5 percent of the electorate in that pivotal campaign year.