Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why 2014 is the year to watch

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon June 3, 2013
President Obama speaks at a Chicago event Wednesday to raise money for Democratic candidates in the midterms.
President Obama speaks at a Chicago event Wednesday to raise money for Democratic candidates in the midterms.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Midterm elections could change the balance of power in Congress
  • Zelizer: If Democrats win, they can force compromise; if GOP wins, it can torpedo Obama
  • He says midterms will be a glimpse at challenges and promises parties will offer in 2016
  • Zelizer: Elections will also offer a huge stage for possible presidential candidates

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- The midterm campaigns will soon be under way. President Barack Obama has a few more months in the hot days of summer to get legislation through Congress, but representatives and senators will soon be focused on their campaigns with little thought for anything else.

The midterm elections will be extraordinarily important for the composition of Congress. If Republicans can expand their numbers in the House and Senate, they might develop enough muscle to stifle Obama from accomplishing anything else. It could also be enough to put pressure on moderate Democrats to further undercut the legislative gains of the first term by enacting spending cuts and weakening the regulatory apparatus of programs like Dodd-Frank.

On the other hand, if Democrats do well they can improve their standing in the House and place more pressure on Republicans to make compromises.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Besides the composition of Congress, the midterms will provide some insight into the challenges each party will face and what promises they might make in the 2016 presidential election.

The shape of the campaigns will start to clarify what the Republicans intend to stand for and whether they can put forth ideas that excite, rather than turn off, voters outside the reddest parts of the country.

The rebellion taking place within the GOP has been growing more intense. Many senior leaders are warning that their party is on a destructive path that will only lead to more rounds of defeat. Many Republicans privately agreed when former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole said the GOP ought to be "closed for repairs" until next year, and in the meantime, "spend that time going over ideas and positive agenda."

IRS excerpts raise more questions
Affirmative action case in court's hands

Since 2010, Republicans invested almost everything in the issue of deficit reduction and saying no to everything that came out of the White House. The bet hasn't been paying off. At a certain point, voters seem to have lost interest in the message and, now that the long-term budget picture is doing much better while the economics of austerity has come under fire, the issue is gaining even less voter traction.

The midterm elections will be the opportunity in the next two years for Republicans to show voters they have something more to say, and to offer two or three big ideas they can use in the race for the White House.

Democrats face a similar challenge. They need to start hinting at what their party will be about in the post-Obama age. Many Democrats are wondering if the next election will be like 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush campaigned on Ronald Reagan's record and essentially promised to do more of the same, just in kinder and gentler fashion. Or will Democrats try to offer something more transformative -- a governing agenda for the challenges we face in 2016 rather than those we faced in 2008?

Voters want to hear what Democrats have to say about federal investments in the nation's economic future, about how to handle climate change and how to build on Obama's promise to restore the balance between law and civil liberties and homeland security. If Democrats can start developing ideas for the next candidate to run on, they could not only bolster their numbers on the Hill but strengthen the platform for the next crop of candidates to win over voters.

There are also questions about the mood of the electorate. Everyone will have a close eye on the immigrant vote. Although the turnout is much smaller in midterm elections, given the heat of the immigration debates, it will be significant to see if the energy levels are still high among immigrants for the Democrats and how much Republicans have been able to improve their standing with some high-profile party members like Marco Rubio coming out for reform.

It will also be important to see whether any kind of anti-immigrant backlash sets in, similar to what Democrats saw against civil rights in 1966 following the race riots in Watts and other cities. The outcome of the debate over immigration legislation in the House will have a big effect.

The aftermath of the recent controversies will also be significant. Right now the political cycle is in full scandal swing. The midterms will provide some sense of whether those stories have legs, either detrimentally for Democrats as Republicans suffered in 1974 after Watergate or whether a backlash sets in against the GOP, as New Gingrich and his allies suffered in 1998 amid the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Finally, the midterms will offer a platform for future presidential candidates to show their stuff.

In 1966, former Vice President Richard Nixon seized the national spotlight, campaigning for Republicans across the nation, and making it clear, through his fundraising and speeches that he was a formidable candidate who could take on Lyndon Johnson, or any other Democrat. This year, candidates from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will seek to use this moment, with the national spotlight turned on the political playing field, for the same advantage.

It will also be a chance for the parties to shake off some of the challenges that are holding them down, such as the right-wing drift of the GOP -- which could hurt the chances of the Republican candidates in 2016, regardless of how charismatic and talented they are.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT