With the president winning a second term, what many Americans hoped was just a brief detour into European-style statism turns out to be the opening chapter of a new era. Like other transformative presidents, President Barack Obama will, in effect, shape a decade of American politics and leave a lasting legacy on our nation. In concrete terms, we can expect the federal government to consume not the historical average of 20 percent of GDP, but rather the Obama average of 24 percent or more of GDP—permanently; we can expect the debt to grow and to eclipse the GDP; we can expect individual freedom to be more limited while government becomes less limited; we can expect the military to have fewer resources, a smaller reach and a lesser role overseas; and we can expect more Americans to expect more from the government and less of themselves. These are the consequences of the 2012 status quo election, as a schizophrenic America reelects a president with a gaudy record of serial spending, reelects a House with a mandate to stop the spending free-for-all and reelects a Senate too dysfunctional to do much of anything. There was no breakthrough, no mandate, no message—except to continue an unsustainable status quo.
Fatigued by nearly two years of presidential campaigning, the electorate may not want to start thinking about 2016. But this status quo election virtually forces us to look ahead.
First things first: Mitt Romney was an imperfect candidate, but he didn’t lead the GOP into oblivion. Parties have been written off into “permanent minority status” too many times to count. Things like this were said of the GOP after FDR’s landslide and LBJ’s landslide, after the post-Watergate elections and after Obama’s 2008 victory. And things like this have been said of the Democratic Party, too. After all, it won just two presidential elections between 1860 and 1908. In fact, just two Democrats were elected president between 1860 and 1932. After 1994 and 2004, the party pondered whether it had lost the country.
The coming years will bring new challenges (see above). And a number of governors, lawmakers and political veterans from both parties will answer these challenges with new solutions and new ideas. In no particular order, here are some names to keep in mind.
• Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said 2012 “was probably my time,” adding, “There’s a window of opportunity in life.” But the popular governor is still young, is known as a reformer and is widely respected by people within and outside his party. He would appeal to independents and Hispanics. The drawback of his last name—his brother remains deeply unpopular in polling surveys—will become less of a drag as time passes. It pays to recall that when Truman left the White House, he was considered neither successful nor popular. His approval rating was 26 percent at the end of his presidency, owing to the unpopular Korean War. But history’s verdict is much different today. George W. Bush, like Truman, made hard decisions and chose the hard path. Only time can validate those decisions and that path.
• Senator Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian, is on everyone’s short list. To see why conservatives like Rubio, read his speech at the Reagan Library, in which he talks about the proper role of government, a vibrant civil society, a reformed entitlement system and American exceptionalism. The son of immigrants, Rubio offers a message of upward mobility, free enterprise and core values of faith and family that would appeal to many inside and outside the GOP—and especially to the growing Hispanic and Latino populations, who are playing a growing role in American politics.
• Gen. David Petraeus saved Iraq—and American honor—with his surge plan in 2007-09; led CENTCOM through some of its toughest years; took over command in Afghanistan at the eleventh hour; and has steered America’s military and intelligence machinery through the entire war on terror. He’s a fixer and a consummate man of duty in a country with lots of problems to fix and too few people willing to do their duty. Of course, the Benghazi debacle, which promises to haunt and hound the Obama administration through 2013, could impact the CIA. To his credit, Petraeus has made it clear that his agency did not cover its ears when Americans under fire called out for help. “No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate,” a CIA official declared as the White House began to search for a scapegoat.
• Although she is a natural name for 2016, no one seems as damaged by the Benghazi debacle as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Moreover, she will be almost 70 by the time the next election rolls around. To be sure, that’s not too old to serve. After all, Reagan was 69 when he was elected, and Clinton’s generation of Baby Boomers will remain a key chunk of the electorate. But it is rare for the electorate to go back a generation. Obama, it pays to recall, was born at end of the postwar Baby Boom and/or the beginning of the post-Boom generation.
• The age problem also faces Vice President Joe Biden, who is even older than Clinton. Still, he has openly talked about a 2016 run.
• Other Democrats to watch for include the two Virginia senators—Mark Warner and Tim Kaine—and governors Deval Patrick and Andrew Cuomo.
• Soon-to-be-former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was recruited heavily in 2011-12 but said no. The likelihood that he will say yes in 2015-16 seems low, given his new apolitical role as president of Purdue University.
• A more-likely Hoosier to run for president is the governor-elect, Mike Pence. First elected to Congress in 2000, Pence is a small-government conservative committed to a strong defense and traditional values—firmly in the Reagan tradition.
• Sen. John Thune, the plain-spoken, tough-minded conservative from South Dakota, has hinted that he might run. Although he doesn’t have a big-state base, he has all the positions and traits of a solid candidate.
• New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could be a factor in the next cycle. He contemplated a run in 2012. His 2016 hopes may be impacted by frustrations some in the GOP expressed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when he praised Obama’s help in dealing with the effects of the killer storm. But that could just as easily be spun as evidence of Christie’s ability to put partisanship aside.
• Rep. Paul Ryan was catapulted into the national consciousness and conversation when Romney asked him to join the ticket. The coming two years promise to position Ryan at the very center of the debate over the size and scope of government, which will only elevate him nationally. Indeed, Ryan, who retained his House seat, could arguably play a larger role in the looming fiscal fights as chairman of the House Budget Committee than as vice president—a post John Adams dismissed as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”
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