Looking Ahead to 2016: Hillary Clinton vs. Paul Ryan?

After the most expensive presidential campaign in history—and one of the noisiest—Americans are enjoying the post-election calm. But for Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan, likely front-runners for the next presidential election cycle, the 2016 campaign has already begun. Here’s how they can become their parties’ standard bearers.

By: Nicholas Owen

Dear Paul:

You face a solid field of candidates in a party hungry to regain the White House. So your road will be a lot tougher than Hillary’s.

Sarah Palin is still lurking out there, but she hasn’t gained any experience in governing since 2008 and may be a distant memory by 2016. Rick Perry may have passed Presidential Candidate 101 this time—or maybe not. Chris Christie is an entertaining politician but too in-your-face “Jersey” for many Republicans. Jeb Bush can’t be ignored, but a third Bush may be more than the public can take.

Marco Rubio has the Obama thing going for him: charm, oratorical skills, and a history-making quest to be the first Hispanic nominee of a major party. But poor leadership skills may be a weakness. And your fellow Wisconsinite, Governor Scott Walker, is a GOP hero for taking on public-employee unions and surviving a recall election. That surely would give him a boost in the GOP primary battles but could cast him as too polarizing for a general-election campaign. Here’s what you need to do.

1. Raise Your Profile

You were smart to run for reelection to your House seat along with the vice-presidency. Trouble is, the House isn’t a traditional launching pad for the Oval Office. The last sitting House member to win the presidency was James Garfield in 1880, and he was assassinated only months into his term. History is not on your side.

So you need to demonstrate leadership. For starters, take a leading role in selling a budget deal to fellow Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff. Be bold in supporting a bipartisan solution that combines needed spending restraint with higher taxes. You have an advantage because you know the budget better than just about anyone else in Congress and can argue that the tax increases are a fair price to pay to win savings in entitlement programs and to reduce our burgeoning national debt. If you can help sell a deal, you’ll be an instant hero with the public, the business community, and the media. True, many Republicans will be irate over any deal that includes higher taxes, but you can argue that the GOP won more than it gave up. The pundits likely will deem you a top contender for the GOP nomination.

2. Play Down Social Issues

The 2012 election proved again that the economy trumps social issues with the majority of voters, and being too far right on the social agenda can hurt in the general election. Ask Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, whose controversial comments on rape cost them election in Missouri and Indiana. Follow Ronald Reagan’s lead: He kept the social agenda on the back burner and won two blowout races by making the economy, leadership, patriotism, and national security the hallmarks of his candidacy.

Unlike Mitt Romney, who was all over the place on social issues, you’ve been a consistent social conservative. Republicans know where you stand. You don’t need to dwell on your positions.

3. Court the Latino Vote

Romney’s loss can be attributed in large measure to his failure to appeal to Latinos, who helped give Obama the keys to the White House again in states such as Nevada and Colorado. George W. Bush won two terms in part by taking a more centrist position on immigration reform. That should be your path, too. Don’t vacillate as Romney did.

If Rubio, with his roots, and Jeb Bush, with a more moderate record on illegal immigration, enter the 2016 race, they may pull the GOP closer toward the center on immigration so the party stops losing the fastest-growing demographic in the country. The imperative to be competitive with this key voting bloc will be even greater a few years from now.

4. Embrace the “X” Factor

Play up your youth. At age 42, you’re the first post-baby boomer to be on a presidential ticket. As a Gen-Xer, you can speak for all those millions of voters who are weary of the boomer horde and the soaring costs they’re imposing on the nation as they enroll in Medicare and collect Social Security.

Your generation and those that follow want to know how their elected leaders will keep entitlement costs from getting out of hand. Their top priorities are jobs, housing, and education, not retirement. Your proposal to reform Medicare by offering an alternative option—vouchers to buy private insurance—may be anathema to seniors but could speak to younger voters.

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for President marked the passing of the torch to a new generation. After 24 years of boomer Presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama), you can be in the vanguard of another historic transition.

Read our letter to Hillary

Dear Hillary:

The Democratic nomination is yours if you play it smart and outfox your toughest primary challengers—Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Deval Patrick, Martin O’Malley, and Mark Warner. Here’s what you need to do.

1. Take a Long Vacation

After four years as Secretary of State, you need a break to revive yourself and build up the stamina needed for a grueling presidential campaign. After an exhausting period of globetrotting, lots of R&R is essential. You don’t have to stay in the public eye. Your name recognition is 100 percent, your public-approval rating is the highest of any member of Obama’s Cabinet, and your record at State is stellar but for the controversy over the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Tragic as that event was, it’s hard to see it as a political liability in four years.

You’ll turn 69 in 2016, the same age Ronald Reagan was in 1980 and younger than GOP nominees Bob Dole and John McCain when they ran. And “Uncle” Joe Biden will be 73. So your age is hardly a disqualifying factor.

Demur on your plans for running for President until 2014 to keep your opponents off balance, and spend time quietly collecting political chits. You don’t need to devote a lot of time building an organization and raising money. Your 2008 operation will come back together quickly, and a torrent of money will flow your way the moment you announce.

Just as the “new” Nixon came out from years of hiding to win in 1968, you can emerge from your hiatus in 2014 or 2015 as the new Hillary: tanned, rested, and ready.

2. Keep Bill in Check

Your husband is as charismatic and popular as ever. President Obama’s victory was aided in no small part by the former President’s powerful speech at the Charlotte convention and his energetic campaigning through Election Day. But Americans also expect their political icons to behave. Though the Monica Lewinsky episode seems like ancient history, no one wants to see another embarrassing family feud unfold in public. Assign a full-time minder to him.

3. Embrace the “Third Way”

When the election cycle begins, campaign as the candidate of compromise and consensus. That’s a lesson you can borrow from Bill, whose centrist positioning and bipartisan deals were hallmarks of his presidency.

Even as our two parties have moved further to the left and right, Americans yearn for problem-solving leaders. Grab the center from the start and never budge. You don’t have to prove your liberal bona fides to Democrats. Run as the candidate who really can break the gridlock with common-sense solutions and bipartisan goodwill. Just as Bill worked with Republicans to reform welfare and pass NAFTA and Cold Warrior Richard Nixon opened the door to China, you can be the candidate willing to tackle the third rail of Democratic politics: unsustainable entitlement spending.

4. Play the Gender Card

Your bid to become the first woman nominated for President by a major US party fell short in part because of Obama’s equally historic status in 2008. Your time has finally come—don’t hesitate to make your campaign one of destiny. No doubt others will campaign to be the first Hispanic presidential nominee (Marco Rubio, Julian Castro?) or the first Indian-American (Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley?). But you have the numbers on your side—more than half the electorate. Perhaps Sarah Palin will try to be the Republican nominee. All the better to turn 2016 into the year the United States finally elects a woman President.

Your campaign can become a cause as deep and passionate as Obama’s stirring run in 2008.

Read our letter to Paul

Nicholas Owen covers Washington’s political scene. Subjects of previous Washingtonian articles include Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, President George W. Bush, and Congress.

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of Washingtonian.