December 27, 2015
In an attempt to prepare for the New Year, over the next few days, we’ll roll out a few concepts that seem important to consider. All are items others are talking about, sometimes to excess, but there may be a different way to approach them.
First up is the Overton window. It’s a theory developed by a man named Joseph Overton back in the 1990s, and it postulates that any person has a window of acceptable political policies and positions. A candidate doesn’t need to hit a voter directly, just land within bounds.
The window moves. Over time, things once unacceptable to many (gay marriage for example), become controversial, then popular. Once upon a time, it was socially acceptable to yell expletives at uniformed servicemen walking through an airport. No more.
Though Americans don’t often agree on when it makes sense to send troops into battle, the window to scorn them is shut. With gay marriage, the window opened first among Millennials and has expanded to other generations and wider demographic groups.
On the other hand, abortion remains something that divides the country relatively equally. All but the most extreme positions are acceptable to many, but no position can satisfy most. However, forty years ago, there were plenty of pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. No longer, at least not among elected officials.
In most election seasons, the Overton window plays a role. It helps determine which candidates have a chance of getting nominated. Back in 2008, Rudy Giuliani found his abortion position outside the GOP window, was reluctant to campaign in Iowa as a result, and never recovered.
Hillary Clinton had no reason to fear Jim Webb. Even if he was a skilled fundraiser or campaigner, he’s now far outside the Democratic nominating window. At the same time, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders is showing the window goes further to the left than anyone would have thought in the Bill Clinton days.
You get the idea. Two factors make this an even bigger deal this time. First, The Donald. He’s wreaking havoc on the window all by himself. A full renovation by the Trump Organization. Depending on your stance, you can frame it a couple different ways.
One way is to assume it dooms Republicans in November, either from Trump winding up as the nominee, or by poisoning the party with various voting blocks, often those already skeptical to the GOP.
This approach says he’s expanding the window among Republicans, bringing words and ideas into the discourse that previous GOP candidates were afraid to, but horrifying moderate swing voters.
While this is working out well for Trump (and Ted Cruz), it leaves them at risk of electoral apocalypse next year, bringing their Senate majority down in a wave of intolerance. Perhaps the House majority isn’t completely safe either.
If the Overton window of the general electorate isn’t moving along with the GOP, this reading would prove at least somewhat accurate. But, if Trump is expanding acceptable general discourse overall, he has more of a chance than people think.
Things that once seemed beyond the pale are now just a normal Trump comment. Give it another ten months and his ability to shock might almost vanish. The Obama administration is now looking seriously at deporting some undocumented/illegal families in 2016. Trump is taking credit.
Even if he is still well upside down in favorability rating with the general public, it completely re-adjusts where Marco Rubio sits.
In the primary, this is proving a problem. Instead of sitting squarely inside the window, as his voting record indicates, the presence of Trump pushes Cruz dead center for some, pushing Rubio to the margins. Current polling support indicates this is so.
But should he survive and get nominated, it would make him look like a (Bill) Clinton centrist by fall. Cruz is benefiting both ways, first as a “well, at least he’s not Trump” nomination possibility, and later as a way less extreme candidate than he may have otherwise seemed.
Democrats were relishing the chance to run against Barry Goldwater 2.0. Not only is Cruz significantly more politically savvy, but 30 to 60 second doses of his most explosive hits, courtesy of the Clinton campaign, may not pack the same punch post-Trump.
We don’t know yet. Is Trump de-sensitizing the public or helping to convince them Republicans are beyond the pale? Anyone who says they are sure has their fingers crossed, a dog in the fight, or both.
The reason we can’t determine the above is the second big factor. In case you haven’t noticed, the new millennium isn’t working out so great just yet. Many of the policies of the last 15 years are mostly to completely discredited with a majority of the voting public.
The 45th President of the United States will need votes from people who are upset with how both George W. Bush and Barack Obama handled Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
They will need votes from people who found themselves overleveraged during the Bush years and underemployed in the Obama years. As Bernie likes to point out, wages for a large segment of Americans are the same or worse than they were in the early 1970s.
There was at least some wage growth for regular middle class Americans in the 1980s and 1990s, but the past 15 years have wiped that out. Those who have done well; educated, upper income folks, are split between the two parties. Those who are struggling are split too.
For those who aren’t doing great, otherwise known as a majority of the electorate, tax cuts are discredited. Bush cut taxes, both on income and capital gains. The economy eventually crashed. While I’ve argued it’s not because of the tax cuts, it is proof they aren’t a panacea.
Government intervention is discredited too. Obama was going to jump in and use spending to make things better. While unemployment has dropped, workforce participation is still low, as is wage growth. Many are dissatisfied with Obamacare.
Fifteen years ago, Bush 43 took office with a budget surplus. Almost four full presidential terms later, two from each party, the national debt is more than three times as large.
This makes voters open to things that might have previously seemed way, way off the table. Bernie wants to tax the rich to pay for college, break up the banks, etc. In 1992, he wouldn’t have stood a chance in a Democratic primary. Today, he has a +10 favorable rating with the general public.
Trump went on an extended rant about how America wasted billions in Iraq and Afghanistan while our infrastructure crumbled at home. If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s because Democrats since John Kerry have made the same point.
Meanwhile, Trump’s ratings among GOP voters continue to climb. They don’t want a return to Bush-era policy either. This is part of what Rubio is fighting. He’s one of the most orthodox of the candidates on the policy side. It’s not helping.
If you want to use the above points to claim the country is moving to the left, you can, but remember, Rubio is currently the most popular candidate in either party among the entire public.
The truth is anything is possible in 2016. Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus, went on Fox News Sunday this morning and sounded like Southern-fried Bernie. He’s always possessed a populist streak, but if you play the “which candidate said this” game, it’s often hard to reach a conclusion.
Sanders specifically referenced Trump this morning, effectively claiming they are addressing the same concerns, the only difference being The Donald is trying to pull voters over to the Dark Side by blaming Mexicans and Muslims, while Bernie wants to use the Force to pull people together.
The 2016 Overton windows, both the respective primary versions and fall election, will find themselves buffeted by all the usual political wind and then some.
It’s very open right now. Which policies and candidates they close around will determine how things play out. Normally, the window moves up or down a continuum, but at the moment it appears larger too, encompassing a bigger range of policy options at once.
The supposedly moving way to the left Democrats strongly prefer the relatively hawkish Hillary (she dominates on foreign policy/ISIS/national security in polling).
The reputedly so far to the right they’re going to fall off the map Republicans are siding with the less interventionist Trump and Cruz (who dominate the same issue-based polling). Any easy conclusion is flawed.
Until each party decides where it stands, we can’t know how their candidates will ultimately try to sell the country.