A funny thing happened last month while the media obsessed over presidential primary horse races: President Obama’s approval ratings ticked up. The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls now shows virtual parity between people who approve of the president’s overall performance and those who don’t. This after over a year of approval deficits ranging from 5% to 8%.
As far as I can tell, nothing good has happened in 2016 to justify Americans raising their appreciation for our commander-in-chief. To the contrary, economic and foreign policy troubles continue to weigh on the minds of voters. By margins of 2-1, they continue to see things in our country “off on the wrong track”.
So what gives? Why might people be softening their views of the president even as the race heats up to take his job?
On the left, the president’s approval ratings have remained consistently high, just as they remain consistently low on the right. What’s changed is the view of independent voters. The primary campaign must be having an impact on them.
Notwithstanding Ted Cruz’s theory about the missing conservative voter, it’s fairly well-established that these independent votes swing elections. And while it doesn’t determine outcomes itself, the approval rating of the incumbent president is a fairly good indicator of his party’s chances in the election that follows.
Herein lies the quandary for true believers. Independent voters make the difference, and yet they don’t line up neatly with the ideology of either “movement conservatives” or the “progressive left”.
Donald Trump generates mass appeal because he speaks to the anxieties and aspirations of people who resent the government’s failures — not those who find salvation in lower marginal tax rates. Hillary Clinton does throw a few leftist barbs at Bernie Sanders for his more measured views of gun control. By and large, though, while Sanders calls for a revolution, Clinton wraps herself in virtues of the status quo.
So as partisans descend into petty attacks and ideological purity tests, the president’s even-keeled demeanor begins to resonate again with the mushy middle.
The people do want change. Most of us just won’t run off a cliff with a pied piper who divides us into camps of us and them. Especially if too many of us find ourselves in the camp of “them”.
Assuming she dodges the criminal investigations surrounding her mishandling of classified information while serving as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton still has a good chance to win both the Democratic primary and the general election. Yes, people may find her untrustworthy and uninspiring, but at the end of the day she projects an image of stability that will ultimately win out over rabble rousing by the likes of Sanders on the left, Cruz on the right, and Trump in the populist middle.
You can see the outlines of Clinton’s stay-the-course strategy taking foot in her stump speeches and among her media advocates. Supporters tout the perceived successes of the Obama administration: ending wars, disarming Iran, increasing health care coverage, reining in Wall Street.
For a challenger to knock Clinton off her game, it will take more than piling on her negatives. These are too easily dismissed as rants of the Fox News-talk radio industrial complex — partisan and self-serving, rather than thoughtful and substantive.
Here is where I take issue with the Trump phenomenon and ill-considered comparisons to the campaigns of Ronald Reagan.
Like Trump, President Reagan connected with the middle class. He was an iconoclastic entertainer who mastered the media channels of his generation.
Unlike Trump, however, Reagan disarmed his adversaries and appealed to the better natures of us all. More important, he upended the status quo by touching the minds as well as the hearts of the people.
To dislodge the liberal establishment from the levers of power in Washington, a conservative candidate must use more than sloganeering. He or she must dismantle the fallacies of Obama era success by picking them off one by one with an unapologetic but rational and good humored argument.
Don’t give us platitudes. Explain the reasons in a way everyone can understand.
Why does disengagement in the Middle East make us less safe at home? Why does government interference undermine our prosperity? Our health care? Our ability to make ends meet? Spell it out in plain English and don’t make us turn against our neighbors to pursue a better life for ourselves and our loved ones.
For this reason I applaud Rich Lowry for engineering National Review’s online symposium Conservatives against Trump. To its credit, NRO assembled a diverse collection of voices, ranging from talk-radio mavericks (Glenn Beck), to neoconservative defenders of the establishment (William Kristol), to heroes of the tea party grassroots (Erick Erickson). Each took a measured and thoughtful shot at the reality-show blowhard — his lack of principle, his authoritarian impulses, his betrayal of conservative norms. Anyone taking the time to absorb this multifaceted critique would see virtue in backing another horse.
But pundits do not turn elections. The candidates themselves must embrace a rational and uplifting message to match their bouts of righteous indignation. This is why I was rooting for Carly Fiorina early on, but now her time has passed. Of the candidates with a realistic pathway to the nomination, Marco Rubio is the only one who fits the bill. If Republicans hope to win back the White House, they better fall in line.