As the crazy protracted carnival of the presidential election rolls forward with ever more outrageous rhetoric, spin, downright lies, and "gotcha" moments, it bears remembering what’s on television usually has little to do with reality. For example, despite the blanket television coverage of the killing 129 Parisians by Islamist terrorists, the average American’s chances of ever getting killed by an international terrorist is lower than getting struck by lightning. In fact, Americans statistically have a greater chance of getting killed by disgruntled domestic reactionaries (for example, the shooter at Planned Parenthood) than they do by radical Islamists.
The U.S. political campaign is likewise filled with made-for-TV illusions. Journalists, believing optimistically that political campaigns, and their distorted coverage of them, do matter, focus excessively on the horse race of who’s coming on and who’s fading rather than on the issues or the underlying forces driving an election. Experts on campaigns in universities focus on these underlying forces.
It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the Republicans could win the presidency in 2016, although the last odds in Las Vegas that I saw on the election (a surprisingly good predictor of past elections) had the Democratic candidate 57-43 edge to win. That is because changing demographics have transferred the intrinsic Electoral College advantage from the Republicans to the Democrats. Also, the Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. This advantage will only increase in the future, as white males continue to shrink as a portion of the population. Also, Donald Trump seems to be hastening the Republican Party’s demise by highlighting the immigration issue, which the party’s establishment wanted to bury to avoid alienating the fastest growing minority in the country. With birthright citizenship guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, if Republicans wanted to do something to stifle illegal immigration – or immigration period – they should have done so a couple of generations back. Hispanics have become a growing political force in the voting booth. In other words, regardless of the merits of the immigration issue, politically Republicans seemed to be fighting a battle that has already been lost – and shooting themselves in the head while doing so.
In Congress and the states, a trend opposite that of presidential elections has occurred; the Republicans control both house of Congress and more and more state governments. However, unfortunately for Republicans and the intentions of the nation’s founders, over time, power in the United States has shifted away from the states to the federal government and, within the federal government, from the Congress to the president. Thus nowadays, we essentially elect an imperial president but then term limit him or her to eight years.
A president’s term can be effectively extended if he or she can get his chosen successor elected (Ronald Reagan was the last to do so in 1988; Bill Clinton almost pulled it off in 2000, except the real state-by-state electoral college election reminded Americans that we don’t have a national presidential election). This reality conforms to the election expert’s conclusion that the presidential election is not usually between two candidates but is instead a referendum on the performance of the administration in currently in power. So voters really will be voting on Obama’s record, not the Democratic and Republican candidates running in 2016.
What is that record? Both progressives and conservatives will be in denial when the policy record is examined, and it is found that the progressive Obama’s record on major policy issues is similar to another recent president – the allegedly conservative George W. Bush. Obama was supposed to end Bush’s quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, with the potential of re-escalation when the Taliban begins to again overrun the country (as it already has begun to do). U.S. re-escalation has already begun to occur in Iraq – after the Bush-created ISIS began to overrun that country and neighboring Syria. The president has begun attacking Syria and is under Republican pressure to escalate there as well. Obama, not learning anything from Bush’s idiotic toppling of Saddam Hussein, overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – again predictably bringing chaos, mayhem, and terrorist sanctuaries – and unbelievably is still campaigning for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Obama not only continued Bush’s illegal and unconstitutional drone wars in several countries outside of Afghanistan, but escalated them, creating yet more terrorist enemies for the U.S. to fight. Also, despite his determination to be a civil liberties president in the wake of Bush’s expansion of the illegal surveillance state, torture, and abuse of constitutional rights, Obama continued many of the same policies, except for ending torture.
In budgetary matters, Bush spent more domestically than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and Obama continued the spending binge with his giant pork-barrel stimulus program to attempt to trick the country out of its Bush-induced Great Recession. During that recession, Bush bailed out "too-big-to fail" banks, socialized the AIG insurance giant, and finished socializing the failing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage lenders. Obama followed Bush’s bailing out of sick U.S. auto makers with a round of his own socialism – with government takeovers of Chrysler and General Motors. Combined with his massive domestic and war spending increases, Bush initiated huge tax cuts during a war, thus exploding federal budget deficits to record levels; Obama continued most of Bush’s tax cuts but has gradually reduced the budget deficit.
Although during post-World War II presidencies, the American economy has performed much better during the Democratic administrations, perhaps the reason is counterintuitive. Contrary to politicians’ rhetoric and popular perception, Democratic presidents have generally had more conservative spending policies that actually slowed government spending growth as a percentage of GDP more than did Republicans and have had lower budget deficits than their Republican counterparts. Obama’s lame economic recovery might have been better had he followed the more fiscally conservative policies of his Democratic predecessors.
To cover a greater percentage of the American population with health care insurance, long a gleam in the eye of Democrats, Obama did so inefficiently by creating the Obamacare monstrosity that created a government guaranteed market for insurance companies’ products by requiring near-poor people to buy such health insurance but not subsidizing the full cost of the coverage. Even if adding people to the health insurance rolls was a government responsibility, more efficient and less costly ways of doing it were available. But Bush didn’t do much better in health care, creating the first new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society by adding a costly prescription drug coverage benefit to a Medicare system that was already in deep financial trouble – all this to get political points with seniors, the wealthiest age group in the American population.
Bush continued the federalization of education, traditionally the responsibility of state and local governments, with his "No Child Left Behind" policy that rewarded schools for doing well on federally standardized tests. So far, Obama has continued this ill-advised federalization process.
So despite the political theater of overheated rhetoric by both political parties on the campaign trail and in Washington, when governing, both parties come up with similar policies – mostly detrimental to the country. Unsurprisingly, in a two-party system, the parties behave as do two giant companies when they are the only competitors in an industry (called a duopoly) – they pretend to compete but collude under the table. This phenomenon happens behind-the-scenes frequently in Washington and will continue no matter who wins the presidency in 2016 – with voters becoming justifiably angrier and angrier. However, without systematic reforms that would require amendments to the Constitution, the voters will get more of the same.