Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why 2014 is the year to watch

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
June 3, 2013 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT