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YOUNG: Republicans already facing ‘The Question’ of who for 2016?

Choice of candidates in 2014 will set the tone for next White House race

- - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

As the 2014 midterm elections approach, The Question returns: Who will Republicans nominate? Since Barack Obama was first elected president, that has been the defining question in election after election across the country. This is because during the past three years, the determining factor for America's political landscape has been Republicans' inability to fully exploit Mr. Obama's political weakness.

It is a fact of life that the president is the center of America's political universe. He administers a government that spends one-fifth of the nation's gross domestic product, initiates policy, dominates the media, and raises more campaign contributions than countless other politicians combined.

Where goes the president, so goes America's political agenda. With a persistently weak economy, high budget deficits, Obamacare's pratfalls, and now the report condemning the handling of the Benghazi tragedy, it is easy to forget that things have not gone well for the president in quite a while.

Mr. Obama has maintained a core of strong support among liberals, but more broadly, his backing has always been weak. When his presidency began in January 2009, Gallup polling showed Mr. Obama with an amazing 68 percent approval to a 12 percent disapproval rating. However, this would not last long.

Roughly a year later, his rating was negative. By late October 2010, his approval-disapproval rating was just 43 percent to 49 percent, and Democrats suffered a huge midterm defeat.

Even in November 2012, Mr. Obama's rating was positive by just a 50 percent to 44 percent margin. He would go on to become the first president to win re-election to a second term by a lower popular-vote percentage than his original election.

Things are even rougher now, as shown in a recent Quinnipiac poll. When asked about his handling of health care, he is viewed negatively — 35 percent to 61 percent. His handling of the economy is negative — 39 percent to 58 percent. His handling of the federal budget was a negative, 34 percent to 60 percent. Even his handling of foreign policy was a negative, 41 percent to 51 percent.

Because the president defines their "brand," Democrats are saddled with Mr. Obama's weakness. Heading into the 2014 elections — now slightly more than nine months away — they also must defend more Senate seats than the Republicans, and a recent spate of their House members aren't seeking re-election.

Democrats have already fared badly with Mr. Obama in 2010, losing six Senate seats and 63 House seats. Also, presidents' parties have historically done particularly poorly in their second midterm election.

However, to take advantage of Democrats' many disadvantages, Republicans must choose their candidates correctly — and repeatedly — in races across the country. Since 2010, all too often, they have been unable to do so — with 2012 Senate races in Missouri and Indiana most notably coming to mind.

The election in 2014 could well be a big determinant for 2016. The effect of a united opposition Congress on an already weak, lame-duck Obama presidency could likely be devastating. If so, it would go a long way to determining 2016's outcome — just as 2006 did for the Bush administration and Republicans in 2008.

How Republicans fare in 2014 will also be a strong indicator of how they will perform in 2016. For this reason, many will be watching. Obviously, contributors and independent voters will be closely focused, but so too, will Republicans and conservatives. If Republican primary voters cannot choose well, there will be increasing doubt whether they will do so two years hence.

Momentum is important in politics, and it does not happen by luck. Gaining it is a dual process: an opponent's mistake and one's own success. It's a chicken-or-the-egg riddle as to which must come first. What is vital for maximum effect is that they both happen.

While Republicans often have been handed their opponents' mistakes over the past three years, they have too often failed to capitalize by combining them with their own success.

Conditioning people to vote one way — and feeling comfortable with it later — is the reason incumbents prove so hard to beat in American politics. Republicans greatly need to start that process now, when the stakes are high and opportunity is there to be had.

As high as the stakes are now, they are nothing compared to what the stakes will be in just two years. If their past mistakes prove anything, it is that Republicans cannot afford to wait two more years to correctly answer The Question.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.