Weak­ened party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion puts GOP at a disad­van­tage for now

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

The Gallup or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ported its latest find­ings on party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion late last week, and the re­port con­tained good news for the Democrats and a flash­ing yel­low for Repub­li­cans. The Democrats “have re­gained an ad­van­tage” over the GOP in party af­fil­i­a­tion, Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones wrote in an ac­com­pa­ny­ing anal­y­sis. Repub­li­cans, he added, “have seem­ingly lost the mo­men­tum they had go­ing into last fall’s elec­tions.”

The cur­rent num­bers don’t mean Repub­li­cans can’t win the White House in 2016. The Democrats’ ad­van­tage is not as large as at other points in the past, for ex­am­ple. But the find­ings add to a se­ries of data points that un­der­score the chal­lenges ahead for a party try­ing to keep pace with a rapidly chang­ing coun­try.

The latest num­bers es­sen­tially mark a re­set that re­turns party af­fil­i­a­tion to its mod­ern his­tor­i­cal norm. Democrats long have en­joyed the ad­van­tage over Repub­li­cans in Gallup’s mea­sures.

In those few pe­ri­ods when the GOP drew even or slightly ahead (af­ter Repub­li­cans took con­trol of Congress in 1994 or af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001), the party has been un­able to hold that ground for long.

These have ob­vi­ously been good weeks for Pres­i­dent Obama and the Democrats. The Supreme Court’s de­ci­sions re­ject­ing another le­gal chal­lenge to the Af­ford­able Care Act and rul­ing that same-sex mar­riage is now le­gal around the coun­try gave the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion two sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries that were at odds with Repub­li­can doc­trine.

Obama’s eu­logy at the me­mo­rial ser­vice for the Rev. Cle­menta Pinck­ney, one of nine peo­ple slain last month af­ter Bi­ble study at the Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Charleston, S.C., was fur­ther ev­i­dence of a pres­i­dent de­ter­mined to lever­age the pow­ers of his of­fice to ad­vance an agenda at odds with the poli­cies and po­si­tions of the GOP.

Repub­li­cans in Congress have blocked his path to leg­isla­tive suc­cess on many of Obama’s pet is­sues: gun con­trol, min­i­mum wage, immigration re­form and cli­mate change among them. But the pres­i­dent’s sharp­ened rhetoric on these and other is­sues sig­naled a re­newal of the qua­dren­nial bat­tle for public opin­ion and elec­toral sup­port.

Obama has re­peated his at­tacks on the GOP as a party out of touch with the coun­try, as a party of the past dur­ing a time of his­toric change. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton is echo­ing that same mes­sage about the Repub­li­cans as she cam­paigns for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion.

Demo­cratic Party af­fil­i­a­tion no doubt has ben­e­fited by a mod­est rise in Obama’s ap­proval rat­ings, which were weak through most of 2014 and have re­cov­ered some­what this spring and sum­mer. The stronger Obama’s ap­proval rat­ings next year, the more likely it is that the Democrats will re­tain the White House for a third con­sec­u­tive term.

This isn’t the first time Obama has en­joyed a con­flu­ence of good events and re­newed energy, only to see it slip away. Such ebbs and flows have marked his pres­i­dency from the start and could pull him down from the high mo­ment he is en­joy­ing.

Clin­ton is widely pop­u­lar among Democrats of all ide­o­log­i­cal stripes, even as she faces a chal­lenge from the left for the nom­i­na­tion from Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.). Still, she car­ries sub­stan­tial bag­gage that could af­fect her prospects in a gen­eral elec­tion, if she is the party’s nom­i­nee.

Repub­li­cans must hope that they nom­i­nate a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who the public sees as shar­ing its val­ues and who em­bod­ies the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the coun­try. For now, how­ever, the con­test for the nom­i­na­tion of­fers pot­holes and pit­falls.

“Although Obama and the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in Congress re­main a ma­jor fo­cus of the po­lit­i­cal news cov­er­age, at­ten­tion is in­creas­ingly turn­ing to the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign,” Jones’s anal­y­sis notes. “Here Democrats may be ben­e­fit­ing from hav­ing a well­known and rel­a­tively pop­u­lar front-run­ning can­di­date in Hil­lary Clin­ton, which paints a con­trast to the large, frac­tured and gen­er­ally less well-known field of Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.”

The Repub­li­can field on pa­per is sub­stan­tially bet­ter than it was four years ago. But at present, no one is cap­tur­ing the in­ter­est or imag­i­na­tion of the vot­ers.

The best known among the group is for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush. But his fam­ily name and re­sis­tance hob­ble him to another Bush pres­i­dency.

The other Repub­li­cans have barely reg­is­tered, even among party faith­ful. Ev­ery one of the can­di­dates has a per­sonal story he or she thinks will turn him or her into a more com­pelling fig­ure, but few vot­ers are lis­ten­ing at this point. The seem­ing strength of the field has yet to re­turn div­i­dends to the party as a whole.

Nor have the can­di­dates be­gun to en­gage one another. When they do, the party will be plunged into a de­bate about the fu­ture — of health care, of the en­vi­ron­ment, of same-sex mar­riage, of the econ­omy. On some of these is­sues, the di­vi­sions risk play­ing into Obama’s and Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Repub­li­cans be­ing caught in the past.

Oba­macare an­i­mates the Repub­li­can base but is a call for re­peal a win­ning is­sue?

On same-sex mar­riage, should Repub­li­cans stand for a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to give states the power to de­cide the def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage, as some GOP can­di­dates ad­vo­cate, or try to take the is­sue off the agenda?

On cli­mate change, the chal­lenge ap­pears to be find­ing the right lan­guage and the right bal­ance on pol­icy. How will the can­di­dates di­vide on this is­sue?

The Repub­li­cans run­ning for pres­i­dent have choices to make as they at­tempt to po­si­tion them­selves and their party as be­ing in touch with the as­pi­ra­tions of a ma­jor­ity of the vot­ers.

The prin­ci­ples and val­ues they stand for and the fights they de­cide to take on will de­ter­mine their suc­cess. What they have lost in af­fil­i­a­tion over the past few months is not ir­re­triev­ably gone, but hav­ing to make up lost ground is hardly the way Repub­li­cans wanted to start the 2016 cam­paign.


Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton flexes her mus­cles with­Miss Teen NewHamp­shire Al­lie Knault, cen­ter, and Miss NewHamp­shireHolly Blan­chard dur­ing a Fourth of July pa­rade in Gorham, N.H.

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