In American politics, one narrative — one question — eclipses all others: Who will become the 45th president?
But there are dramas within that drama. There’s also suspense aplenty beyond center stage, and much of it does not involve Donald Trump, a third-party candidacy or the specter of a brokered Republican convention. This column, in the spirit of the holidays, will be a Trump-free zone.
Some of the following subplots could greatly influence the outcome of the presidential contest while others have big implications for the sway and the health of the Republican and Democratic parties.
They’re just a glimmer of what 2016 has in store.
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Barack Obama unbound. He’s zipping down the road with Jerry Seinfeld. He’s unzipping his lip with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio. He’s intensifying his fight against climate change.
As Obama pivots into the final phase of his presidency, he seems to be heading in a new direction, toward greater candor, fewer inhibitions, no apologies. He has felt muzzled and misunderstood for much of his time in the White House. I sense a catharsis coming.
And it could complicate the inevitably strained etiquette between him and the Democratic presidential nominee, meaning Hillary Clinton. She’ll have to defend many aspects of his legacy and disparage others as she does and doesn’t campaign for a third Obama term. He’ll react to this as someone who’s losing his limited patience with political gamesmanship, who’s tired of playing the punching bag and whose aides and associates are sometimes aghast at the Clintons.
Side note: Watch for Joe Biden, by design or accident, to blurt out something harmful to her at some point.
Bill Clinton on the loose. Until recent weeks, it was almost possible to forget him as a presidential-race factor. Then Hillary Clinton, in the last Democratic debate, tagged him as a key economic adviser in any second Clinton administration. Her campaign confirmed that he’d be popping up more often on the campaign trail. And references to his Oval Office misdeeds and the Clintons’ marital psychodrama started to creep back into the news.
All of that was a fresh reminder that his proper role in, and impact on, his wife’s candidacy is unsettled and unclear. He remains both wildly charismatic and maddeningly undisciplined. He connotes both prosperous times and cynical scheming.
There’s no legitimate worry that his presence might eclipse and diminish hers, but the two of them together root her candidacy as much in the past as in the future. So how to deploy and integrate him? Is it controllable?
All eyes on New Hampshire. I don’t mean the state’s Republican and Democratic primaries in February. I mean the U.S. Senate election in November. The balance of power in the chamber could hinge on the battle between the Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, and her Democratic challenger, Maggie Hassan, the state’s governor.
It won’t look like many other Senate contests. New Hampshire’s peculiar political realities mean that neither candidate is likely to be especially nasty or ideologically strident; each may well emphasize consensus-building and look for opportunities to flex independence from the party that’s paradoxically pumping enormous resources into her race.
A tale of two mayors. The Democratic mayors of two of the nation’s three most populous cities are under enormous strain, their approval ratings low, their approaches to governing under attack. I speak of Bill de Blasio in New York and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, each of whom has acknowledged the need for redemption in 2016.
But while de Blasio’s greatest problems are with white voters, Emanuel has lost the trust in particular of minorities, who are justly outraged by the deadly actions of his city’s police officers.
The methods and success with which these remarkably different men chart their comebacks warrant scrutiny, harboring lessons about the Democratic Party’s ability to bridge diverse constituencies and about the most effective style of leadership for fractious, tense times.
Religion on the run. Same-sex marriage became the law in 50 states despite the opposition of many prominent church figures. The percentage of Americans who don’t subscribe to any organized religion steadily grows.
And that means that whoever winds up with the Republican nomination has to figure out how to play down the primary’s degree of God talk and moralizing without alienating voters on the so-called religious right, who could cause a distracting scene, impede the party’s outreach to moderate and younger voters, and decide to sit out the election.
Can the party soften its image, adapt to the times and expand its appeal while satisfying evangelicals? Its success in presidential contests could hinge on that.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.