An Optimist's Guide to 2015 Politics

Looking for action in the year ahead? Ignore Washington and concentrate on what's going on in statehouses, the court system, and the presidential contest.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Could 2015 be the year things work in American politics?

Probably not in Washington, although it's a fun fantasy to indulge. And while it's unlikely the next 12 months will see an outbreak of comity and decline in partisan polarization, there are some reasons to look for action in Washington and especially in state capitals and the court system. If nothing else, it's the last chance before the 2016 presidential campaign begins in earnest—crowding out all other factors, privileging grandstanding over gritty details, and drawing top contenders away from D.C. and out into Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

So what's going to happen? Making predictions about political outcomes is a fool's errand, but there are a few topics to watch.

There are optimists out there who think that divided government could be productive. With control of both houses of Congress newly acquired, Republicans will want to prove that they can govern, that they're not just the "Party of No," as Democrats have charged. President Obama, meanwhile, will want to work with them to help secure his legacy as his term winds down—2015 is likely his last chance to get anything accomplished—to say nothing of what his Democratic allies see as a maddening impulse to bipartisanship and surrender, even when it isn't necessary.

That's well and good and makes sense as far as it goes. But what, precisely, is there for them to compromise on? Or will Republicans just pass a lot of bills that Obama vetoes?

Let's start with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's first priority: voting to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama continues to insist that he will make a decision only once he's sure that the pipeline won't seriously increase carbon emissions, and lately the administration has seemed to hint it's leaning against the project. But there's speculation that Obama might cut a deal, trading approval of Keystone to keep new EPA carbon-emissions regulations in place. Another possible area of agreement is free-trade deals—if McConnell and Obama can overcome populist elements in their own parties, the Tea Party and a newly invigorated, Elizabeth Warren-led band of Democrats.

There will be plenty to fight over, though. Some time in 2015, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling. Loretta Lynch, the president's nominee for attorney general, and Ash Carter, his nominee to lead the Pentagon, both still await confirmation. Both should be confirmed, but there could be interesting battles in the process. Republicans will continue to search for ways to stop Obama's executive actions on immigration. Although party leaders now seem resigned to Obamacare's existence (at least as long as Obama is in office), there will probably be continued symbolic efforts to repeal it, if nothing else to appease conservative elements on the Hill and in the electorate. And as Ted Cruz's failed maneuver earlier this month showed, he's still liable to throw Congress into chaos now and then, with unpredictable results.

So the real action will come in three theaters: statehouses, courts, and the presidential campaign. Why state capitals? Because unlike Washington, they're not frozen by the same kind of polarized division. Single-party dominance in the states was already at a recent peak before November, and now it's more extreme. Consider this: Republicans control 68 of 98 state legislative chambers. In 23 states, they control the entire legislature and the governorship. Even after their debacle, Democrats can claim complete control of another seven states. The reasons for this sorting are complex and hotly debated; the important part for our purposes is it means it's much easier for a party to get its way at the state level. As Politico notes, the No. 1 action item is likely to be tighter restrictions on abortion.

While Obamacare is probably safe from Congress for now, it could be in deep trouble at the Supreme Court, where justices will hear arguments in King v. Burwell. While liberals deride the case as nothing more than a fight over a typo, the Court could easily kill off federal health-insurance exchanges. Meanwhile, the nation is likely to see the continued expansion of marriage equality, as more and more courts strike down laws banning same-sex unions.

Looming over all of this—sorry, you can't escape, not even at this early stage—is the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

The story on the Democratic side looks pretty boring at the moment. It's Hillary's world until there's some reason to believe it's not: Either she announces she's not going to run after all, or a challenger actually gains a toehold against her. For now, the only person who seems capable of doing that is Elizabeth Warren, and she insists—with careful emphasis on the present tense—that she isn't running. It's hard to imagine anyone else having any luck; in fact, it's hard to even imagine Warren getting very far against Clinton at this point. But as the caveat in every Democratic primary news article points out, no one saw Barack Obama coming in 2007.

The real excitement is on the GOP end of things. Back in 1988, the Democratic field for president was so weak, and so large, that it was waggishly dubbed "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." The 2016 Republican field, while better positioned for victory, could shape up to be more like 17 dwarves—and no Snow White. Even with Jeb Bush's surprising step toward a run (though it's no more than a first step) there's no clear frontrunner. Bush carries many weaknesses; so does Mitt Romney, the other favorite in polls so far. And the list of names who could get in is long, including serious contenders like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker; unorthodox hopefuls like Ben Carson; lesser-known but experienced pols like John Thune or John Kasich; and totally wacky also-rans like George Pataki.

Between them, the GOP possibles bring a vast range of experience, ideology, and selling points. While 2014 saw Republicans managing to declare enough of a truce in their civil war to score a huge victory, the party still doesn't have a clear identity. And that means that for the fifth or sixth year running, the Republican Party will probably be the most interesting thing to watch in national politics.