How the GOP Can Win the Presidency in 2016

"Libertarian populism might be a good basic pitch." 

At the moment, Hillary Clinton is not only the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination—she is the favorite to be the next president of the United States, albeit less overwhelmingly.

Yet Hillary knows well that the polls two years out don’t mean very much. She watched an early lead evaporate as she lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. On the other side of the aisle, Rudy Giuliani led the national polls for over a year before failing to win a single Republican primary.

Republicans can win the 2016 presidential contest, but nothing is a given. Clinton will enjoy favorable media coverage. Her potential as the first female president will sharpen the war on women narrative, already used to great effect against the GOP.

The Republican primary electorate tends to be somewhat risk-averse. The party’s donor base is even more so. Win or lose, Republicans generally go with the safe choice in presidential candidates. The one recent exception, Barry Goldwater in 1964, almost proves the rule.

But this caution hasn’t served Republicans well over the last two decades. It has produced three general election losers and a failed president who lost the popular vote the first time around. In 2016, going with the conventional choice—Jeb Bush or a slightly refurbished Mitt Romney—would also throw away one of the party’s biggest advantages.

With great fanfare, Hillary Clinton recently became a grandmother. The flip side of the fuzzy family headlines is that she is an older candidate who will be approaching her 70th birthday on Election Day. Usually it is the Republicans who nominate older candidates—Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain.

Clinton is also the product of a bygone political era, something that could prove even more important than her age. The same can be said of many of her political advisers and sometimes it shows. The 1990s were a very different time, especially for Democrats.

These two factors mean Hillary Clinton will lack the freshness of most recent successful Democratic nominees. She has been in the public eye for a long time. That won’t necessarily doom her—Reagan was just as old and had been at least moderately famous for twice as long when he won in 1980—but it means she won’t have an advantage that Obama, her husband and John F. Kennedy all had. That is, if Republicans can avoid the temptation of handing out their presidential nomination like a gold watch at a retirement party. The GOP candidate has the opportunity to be the younger, fresher face in 2016.

Also, think back to the last time the Clintons were in the White House. There was demonstrable Clinton fatigue in 2000. And Bill Clinton was much more popular than Obama is right now.

Maybe a Republican Congress will do something stupid in the next two years to improve Obama’s fortunes. But that doesn’t seem very likely. Obama looks like a tired lame duck at this point. The government shutdown debacle of 2013 didn’t lead to lasting gains for the president or his party.

Obama will be a drag on Hillary in 2016, even if he somehow manages to muster some enthusiasm for his former secretary of state and rival’s candidacy. Some might use the 2000 election as an argument for Jeb Bush—George W. Bush, after all, won—but this would be another wasted opportunity.

Carrying the family, Bush fought the 2000 election to a draw and lost the popular vote. While I shudder to think of an alternate universe where John McCain was president on 9/11, he would have trounced Al Gore. Almost four years removed from the White House, Bush was a liability for Romney in 2012. Again, go with the fresh face.

The next Republican presidential nominee must offer a platform that speaks to the economic anxieties of the middle-class voter. Any tax cut contained therein must offer real savings to people outside the top bracket, not just the promise of slightly accelerated economic growth.

A winning Republican will try to represent workers and not just employers or small-business owners. They must emphasize “replace” as much as “repeal” when talking about Obamacare.

They must come up with new ways to defend the party in the war on women, much like several Senate candidates running this year who have endorsed over-the-counter birth-control access.

Libertarian populism might be a good basic pitch. Not necessarily the specific policies promoted by the writers who describe themselves as libertarian populists—the presidency will not be won or lost on the Export-Import Bank—but the concept.

Consider Dave Brat’s upset of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Granted, it was a Republican primary. But Brat creatively wove together his opposition to bailouts and immigration amnesty in a way that no one could confuse his critique of big government with solicitousness toward big business.

Such a candidate could also be much more candid in acknowledging past Republican failures, still very much on the voters’ minds, than McCain or Romney were ever able to be. They won’t own the Iraq war, which even Romney distanced himself from, or the financial crisis.

Republicans will need a candidate who is socially conservative but not preachy, capable of offering a compelling argument for why a repeat of the disappointing Obama presidency is undesirable without sounding like an angry Internet commenter.

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