2016: When the Fun Stops
It is hard to recall any presidential primary season that kicked off with as much unadulterated fun as this one. There's watching Donald Trump upend received political wisdom with Marxist abandon (the brothers, not Karl); there's the schadenfreude of following the final thrilling episodes of All My Clintons, Season Twenty-Five; there's trying to divine the reality disconnect reigning in the heads of George Pataki and James Gilmore; and, of course, there's watching feisty geezers declaim policy notions even more shopworn than they are to adoring young crowds.
The fun may never end. A genuine "severely conservative" populist/constitutionalist/growth consensus may emerge that sweeps its champions to victory and finally gives John Boehner something to cry about. But there are other less pleasant possibilities.
It is not too far-fetched to imagine that the cleavages exposed in this primary season produce a fundamental realignment of both parties that pushes conservatives and libertarians even farther to the political margins while institutionalizing Obamiasmo, and for the foreseeable future banishing moderating influences from the Democratic Party. If the still fundamentally centrist Clintons are retired forcibly to The Villages' lecture circuit, and Biden or Warren is the nominee, Democrats may as well change their name to the Barry the Great Party. Realignments reflecting emerging realities within the Democratic coalition among unions, blacks, Hispanics, local Obama cadres, and a federal bureaucracy significantly expanded in both size and influence could limit dissident options, creating a potentially more manageable, and therefore more dangerous, whole.
We'll not be rid of Obama himself, either. While he will continue to press his priorities until Inauguration Day, he has also signaled his intention to remain active in defending and promoting them thereafter. No quiet, gentlemanly retirement to the verdant Hawaiian equivalent of Crawford, Texas for him. He will have the money, the international cachet, and most of all, the supreme egoism to continue exerting his baleful influence on our politics for years to come – and with no countervailing moderate influence in his party anywhere to trouble him.
The nightmares do not stop there – after the party, the world. Obama's second term is nothing if not résumé-building for a nice job at the U.N. that could open as early as 2017. But whether his office is at Turtle Bay or The Barack and Michelle Obama Foundation for Hope and Change, the effect will be equally awful.
It could be even worse as far as the Republicans are concerned. While the Establishment types are biding their time for the moment, they are said to have warned that there will be no more Dave Brats or Tom Cottons, and they will back that threat with money and all the other influence they can exert. Moreover, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Bush PACs, the "hedge fund guys," and the party hierarchy will unload when it counts against Trump, Fiorina, Carson, Cruz, or whoever the surviving outsider standard-bearer is. It will be scorched earth, and who's to say they won't in the end prevail, as they did in 2008 and 2012?
"But they can't win or govern without their electoral base!" Oh, no? It depends on what "win" or "govern" is. Some time ago Bush speculated on winning and governing without the base. Suppose the Republicans' primary definition of winning becomes ridding the party permanently of the troublesome conservatives? By forcing them out into a third party, and thereby insuring permanent second-place status for themselves, the Rump Republicans could enter into a kind of de facto coalition government in Washington, permitting them to keep plenty of money and a modest share of the power flowing their way for the foreseeable future. This détente would provide the pretense of an opposition, which could at times be useful for The Donor Class as leverage in dealing with the Democrats, as well as continue to provide suitable employment for Republican consultants. Jeb Bush's round-shouldered shambling gait will symbolize the stance of this New Republican Party admirably.
With a Bush vs. Biden race, the debate can be kept comfortably within acceptable bounds, avoiding awkward references to illegal immigrants, EB-5 visas, cultural suicide, or K Street. Bush will lose the presidency graciously, without being unpleasant about recounts, vote fraud, or voter intimidation. The permanent government can at last enjoy genuine permanence, and everyone will be able to get back to business, as neither money nor troublesome primary challenges are ever a problem again. The aisle can at last be well and truly crossed, and "things" can finally "get done."
And the state parties? As Donald Trump would say, "what are they gonna do about it?"
Conservatives won't be in very good shape, either. Reaction to Trump's antics have unfortunately demonstrated that RINOs are essential to keeping the various strains of contemporary conservatism united. When there are no RINOs to fight, conservatives will, as we are already witnessing, turn on each other. The ensuing scramble for Koch money will be epic. Yet the squabbling factions will somehow have to cooperate, spending years wresting control of local and state parties from the much better-financed and patronage-rich Not Your Grandfather's Republicans if they are to become any kind of serious opposition. Will Donald Trump maintain his attention span through all those picnics and pig roasts?
The alternative to the fun going out of this primary season for the right and for the country may not be just a return to politics as usual. It may be a real nightmare.