- - Monday, May 26, 2014


Those seeking to peer into the future for a glimpse at the 2016 presidential contest should first look at the past. The events of bygone days may provide clues about what lies ahead.

The range of possible events may be large, but the spectrum of conceivable candidates is relatively small. For Democrats, there is Hillary Clinton and a limited number of “everyone elses.” Even for Republicans, only a few now seem able to command the resources needed to win.

Hillary is the prohibitive favorite — again. In 2008, Mrs. Clinton was in the same place she is today. She had money, momentum and mainstream support. Still, she lost — to a freshman senator elected just four years earlier.

If Hillary could not close a deal then that many thought was sealed — until the primaries began — how could she now? Could someone else be a stalking horse for her critics — a group already large enough eight years ago to deny her the nomination? Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren are both able to mount challenges that would be at least as threatening on paper as Barack Obama’s was in 2008.

While uncertainty still exists on the Democratic side, it positively thrives on the Republican side. Governors, senators, congressmen, former elected officials, and — in the case of Paul Ryan — former nominees all could credibly populate the party’s primaries. We are already watching a revolving door of “favorites” spin through the news cycle — Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and, most recently, Jeb Bush have taken their turns — all more than two years before the election. Any of them could win, and we are no closer to having any real clue who will prevail.

The issues that will define and redefine the party primaries are speculation, and we can barely guess how or when they might take shape. The economy is certainly one, and right now, it appears the biggest. Without improvement, it will be hard for Democrats to muster voter appeal — just as George W. Bush’s economy proved a hindrance for John McCain in 2008. Five and a half years in office, President Obama has seen real gross domestic product grow on average just 2.3 percent from 2010 to 2013, just 1.9 percent last year and 0.1 percent in this year’s first quarter. It needs to improve significantly soon if opinions about Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy are to change.

Another issue that could prove important is the federal budget. Mr. Obama claims success here, but it is only relative to his higher deficits earlier. During his five years in office, the deficit has totaled $5.8 trillion — more than doubling the debt held by the public. Bush 41 can attest to its importance when, in 1992, the deficit was $290 billion — a figure quaintly small today, but which pushed him to break his “no new taxes” pledge.

Taxes could be another important issue. Not only are federal revenues estimated to have increased $1.1 trillion in absolute terms and by 3 percentage points of gross domestic product from 2012 through 2016, but Mr. Obama called for an additional $900 billion in taxes in this year’s budget. Voters will feel this great federal revenue increase as steeper rates on upper-income earners and Obamacare penalties kick in.

Obamacare will be another issue likely to dominate 2016. While the law disadvantages Democrats now, increased enrollees and favorable reviews could serve to reverse its consistently double-digit negative favorability ratings. It remains a political wild card as the administration’s implementation delays expire and its full effect on existing coverage is nationally felt.

This November’s election will also profoundly affect the outcome in 2016. The past four presidents elected to second terms — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — all had their second terms undermined by opposition Congresses. Three of then saw their party lose the White House in the next election.

Scandal, either involving candidates vying in 2016 or the current administration, is always a political hand grenade — its effect impossible to determine even as it explodes. Thus far, the administration has dodged the worst effects of events that could have been major scandals — Benghazi, Obamacare’s implementation, National Security Agency spying and the Internal Revenue Service’s Tea Party targeting. The luck may not continue should Republicans take full control of Congress in November.

Foreign policy could play a big factor, too. Like scandal, it has not played a major role thus far for this administration, but few things can change so quickly and thoroughly the domestic political landscape. Just recall Iran’s hostage-taking during the Carter years. Russia, Syria, China, North Korea and Iran all could quickly reshape a presidential election in myriad different ways.

Finally, there is always the unknown — either unpredictable outcomes to events we anticipate or to entirely unexpected events. Approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or immigration reform could sway moderates and independents, or they could splinter either party’s political base.

Despite our best efforts to identify emerging trends, crystal ball predictions of 2016 may prove no more accurate than if we had used a bowling ball.

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.

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