The political stories to watch in 2014

     

    The new year is only a day old, which means that nobody has screwed up yet. For now, I’ll just plot the hot political stories of 2014 – a tip sheet, as it were:

    The midterm congressional elections. Don’t expect much legislative substance on Capitol Hill (I know, you’re shocked), because their main focus this year will be on getting re-elected in November. GOP spin and talking points will be bent to the task of capturing the Senate – a high bar, because Republicans need a net gain of six seats (albeit mostly in red states curently held by incumbent Democrats). As for the Democrats, they’d like to believe they have a shot at netting 17 House seats in a House takeover…just like Ruben Amaro Jr. probably thinks he can parlay the Phillies’ rest-home roster into first place in the NL. (Dream on.) One early indicator for the Dems is the Florida special election to fill a House seat long held by Republican Bill Young, who died recently. It’s in a swing, Obama-friendly district, and it votes on March 11.

    The GOP’s uncivil war. Anyone with a yen for Republican ideological intramurals can kick back with popcorn this year and watch the tea-partyers and establishment types continue to go at it. Some electoral highlights: On March 4, Texas Sen. John Cornyn gets a GOP primary challenge from wing-nut congressman Steve Stockman; on May 20, Mitch McConnell gets a primary challenge from tea-partying businessman Matt Bevin; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending $50 million to find and support rational Republican candidates. (As Chamber strategist Scott Reed puts it, “No fools on our ticket.”) And don’t forget the Senate GOP primary in Georgia, where various tea-partyers will vie on July 22 for the chance to tilt the November election to the Democrats. The favored GOP candidate: wing-nut Congressman Paul Broun, who has called evolution a lie “straight from the pit of hell.”

    Obama and the six-year itch. Presidents who serve two terms typically get hammered in the sixth-year midterms; even FDR’s Democrats got wiped out in 1938, just two years after FDR was re-elected in a landslide. We’ll see if Obama can buck the pattern. It may well depend on factors such as…

    The status of Obamacare. The late ’13 website rollout consigned Obama to polling hell; the big unknown is whether his signature law will help or hurt him politically in ’14. Two million people are now signed up for the health exchanges, and another four million have already benefited (the Medicaid expansion, young adults on parents’ plans, coverage for kids with pre-existing conditions), so it’s possible the worst is over for the Democrats, and that the GOP is in a bind. It’s politically nuts to try to take away peoples’ benefits while offering zip alternatives. All told, it’s too early to say how all this plays out on midterm ballots. It may hinge on which party controls the anecdotal narrative.

    The economy. Factor this into the midterms, too. Most economists are predicting a continued rebound in 2014, with more job growth and more dips in the jobless rate – which is already at a five-year low. But Democrats know that they can’t bestir the liberal base for the midterms just by citing stats and a soaring Dow. Which is why they’re talking a lot more about income inequality, and agitating more vocally for a hike in the federal minimum wage.

    The debt ceiling. Must we endure yet another showdown over whether Uncle Sam will be permitted to pay his bills? Apparently so. The debt ceiling needs to be raised by April the latest, which means the GOP may well gin up another crisis as early as mid-February – insisting that unless Obama caves on something (the Keystone pipeline, some Obamacare provisions, deep cuts to social programs), Republicans will yet again drive us to the brink of default. As the clock radio blared to Bill Murray, “It’s Groundhog Day!”

    Immigration reform. If there’s any legislative action at all, it may happen on this issue. Granted, conservatives continue to be horrified about the prospect of path-to-citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but sane GOP brains have finally come to realize that the party is likely dead in foreseeable national elections unless it begins to make nice to the burgeoning Hispanic electorate. Even John Boehner has hired an immigration reform expert with ties to that community. Progress may come in piecemeal bills, and Obama is reportedly open to that.

    The 2016 presidential preliminaries. Lots of action on this front, in both parties. Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie will accelerate their wink-wink, Ted Cruz will thrill Democrats everywhere with his right-wing delusions about a rapid ascendance, second-tier Democrats will send out feelers (with the likely ultimate goal of becoming Hillary’s running mate)…and keep your eye on a few ’14 Republican gubernatorial races. In swing-state Ohio, John Kasich is up for re-election. He briefly sought the 2000 GOP prexy nomination, and he’s interested in trying again, with a Christie-style boost from crossover Democratic voters. And in Wisconsin, Scott Walker is interested in running up the score in November, perhaps with 2016 in mind.

    There’s lots more, of course – on the international front, what happens to the interim nuclear deal with Iran? will its success or failure help or hurt Obama’s domestic standing? ditto the supposed chemical weapons detente in Syria? ditto the next phase of the Afghanistran slog? – but, perhaps most importantly, numerous unforseen events and issues will resonate politically. Nobody at the start of 2010 could have anticipated the BP oil spill; nobody at the start of 2013 could have anticipated Edward Snowden and the NSA fallout.

    So we’d be wise to heed the words of one of our most infamous oracles, Iraq war planner Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know….But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” True that, Rummy.

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    And don’t forget to take Tuesday’s pop quiz about the fools and follies of 2013. Test your acumen! Amaze your pets!

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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