Socialism Gets a Second Life Why do the young love Bernie Sanders? Because their experience of capitalism is different.

Nashua, N.H.

I was watching Bernie Sanders speak last week at a town hall in Bedford when an early intuition became a conviction: Take Mr. Sanders seriously. He is not just another antic presence in Crazy Year 2016. His rise signifies a major shift within the Democratic Party.

The big room was full, 700 to 800 people, good for 5 p.m. on a Friday. The audience wasn’t raucous or full of cheers as at his big rallies, but thinking and nodding. They were young and middle-aged, with not many white-haired heads. There was a working-class feel to them, though Bedford is relatively affluent.

“Let me disabuse you,” Mr. Sanders says to those who think he cannot win. He quotes New Hampshire polls, where he’s way ahead. He can defeat Donald Trump, he says.

The new beatniksThen the meat. He described America as a place of broad suffering—“student debt,” “two-job families” with strained marriages and insufficient child care, “the old on fixed incomes.”

We can turn it around if we make clear to “the billionaire class” that income inequality “is not moral.” The economy is “rigged.” Real unemployment is not 5% but twice that. “Youth unemployment is off the charts.” He wants job-training programs for the young. The minimum wage is “a starvation wage.” Raise it to “a living wage—15 bucks an hour.”

The audience is attentive, supportive. “Yeah!” some shout.

He speaks of Goldman Sachs, of “banksters” and of a Republican Party owned by “the oil industry, coal industry.”

“Health care is a right of all people, not a privilege.” He asks if any in the audience have high-insurance deductibles. They start to call out: “$4,000,” “5,000,” “6,000!” Someone yells: “Nothing’s covered!”

No one mentions ObamaCare, but it seems clear it hasn’t worked here.

Mr. Sanders says people don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick because of the deductibles. “Same with mental-health care!” a woman calls out. “Mental-health care must be considered part of health care,” he responds, to applause. He is for “a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system.”

How to pay for it all? “Impose a tax on Wall Street speculation,” he says, briefly. He does not elaborate and is not pressed to.

Mr. Sanders’s essential message was somber, grim, even dark. It’s all stark—good guys and bad guys, angels and devils. But it’s also clear and easy to understand: We are in terrible trouble because our entire system is rigged, the billionaires did it, they are the beneficiaries of the biggest income transfer from the poor to the rich in the history of man, and we are going to stop it. How? Through “a political revolution.” But a soft one that will take place in voting booths. We will vote to go left.

As the audience left they seemed not pumped or excited, but satisfied.

I listen to Mr. Sanders a lot, and what he says marks a departure from the ways the Democratic Party has been operating for at least a generation now.

Formally, since 1992, the Democratic Party has been Clintonian in its economics—moderate, showing the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council. Free-market capitalism is something you live with and accept; the wealth it produces can be directed toward public programs and endeavors. The Clinton administration didn’t hate Wall Street, it hired Wall Street. Big government, big Wall Street—it all worked. It was the Great Accommodation, and it was a break with more-socialist approaches of the past.

All this began to shatter in the crash of 2008, not that anyone noticed—it got lost in the Obama hoopla. In March 2009, when Mr. Obama told Wall Street bankers at the White House that his administration was the only thing standing between them and “the pitchforks,” he was wittingly or unwittingly acknowledging the Great Accommodation.

The rise of Bernie Sanders means that accommodation is ending, and something new will take its place.

Surely it means something that Mr. Obama spent eight years insisting he was not a socialist, and Bernie Sanders is rising while saying he is one.

It has left Hillary Clinton scrambling, unsteady. She thought she and her husband had cracked the code and made peace with big wealth. But her party is undoing it—without her permission and without her leading the way. She is meekly following.

It is my guess that Mr. Sanders will win in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the tendency he represents—whether it succeeds this time or simply settles in and grows—is, I suspect, here to stay.

A conservative of a certain age might say: “No, he’s a fad. Socialism is yesterday! Marx is dead, the American economic behemoth rolled over and flattened him. Socialism is an antique idea that rocks with age. America is about the future, not the past.”

I disagree. It’s back because it’s new again.

For so many, 2008 shattered faith in the system—in its fairness, usefulness and efficacy, even in its ability to endure.

As for the young, let’s say you’re 20 or 30, meaning you’ll be voting for a long time. What in your formative years would have taught you about the excellence of free markets, low taxes, “a friendly business climate”? A teacher in public high school? Maybe one—the faculty-lounge eccentric who boycotted the union meetings. And who in our colleges teaches the virtues of capitalism?

If you are 20 or 30 you probably see capitalism in terms of two dramatic themes. The first was the crash of ’08, in which heedless, irresponsible operators in business and government kited the system and scrammed. The second is income inequality. Why are some people richer than the richest kings and so many poor as serfs? Is that what capitalism gives you? Then maybe we should rethink this!

And Mr. Sanders makes it sound so easy. We’re rich, he says; we can do this with a few taxes. It is soft Marxism. And it’s not socialism now, it’s “democratic socialism” like they have in Europe. You’ve been to Europe. Aside from its refugee crisis and some EU problems, it’s a great place—a big welfare state that’s wealthy! The French take three-hour lunches.

Socialism is an old idea to you if you’re over 50 but a nice new idea if you’re 25.

Do you know what’s old if you’re 25? The free-market capitalist system that drove us into a ditch.

Polls show the generation gap. Mr. Sanders does poorly among the old. They remember socialism. He does well among the young, who’ve just discovered it and have little to no knowledge of its effects. A nationwide Marist poll in November showed Mr. Sanders already leading Mrs. Clinton, 58% to 35%, among voters under 30. She led him among all other age groups, and 69% to 21% among those 60 and older. By this month a CBS/New York Times poll had Mr. Sanders up 60% to 31% among voters under 45.

Bernie Sanders is an indicator of the Democratic future. He is telling you where that party’s going. In time some Democrats will leave over it, and look for other homes.

It’s all part of the great scrambling that is happening this political year—the most dramatic, and perhaps most consequential, of our lifetimes.

Palin and the GOP’s Uncertain Trumpeters What Donald Trump needs is an injection of seriousness. The same is true of his opponents.

Sarah Palin’s public performances continue to be distinctive. Her endorsement of Donald Trump was less speech than podium jazz scat, with some early Elvis thrown in. “Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic, the ramifications of that betrayal of a transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay?” Essentially: Bee-bop-a-lula he’s my baby. She was scattered, rambly; at moments she foraged through her notes in a way that was almost endearing, looking for lines that would connect and explode. But it’s not as interesting as it used to be because it’s not new.

If you’re in the mood for irony, here’s one. The great foes of Sarah Palin now are the people who made her a national figure in 2008, defended her and attacked her critics. It is the GOP establishment that now most furiously disses and denigrates her. Everything has switched around in the GOP the past eight years. It is a world turned upside down.

Sarah Palin & Donald Trump

Sarah Palin & Donald Trump

In the short term her endorsement is said to help in Iowa. It would have helped Ted Cruz if she’d chosen him, because for the first time it would have drawn a line, for some people, between real conservatives and Mr. Trump. So it’s good for Mr. Trump she’s off the table and on his side. But in the long run it’s probably a wash. Mrs. Palin brings her own mad excitement, but at this point she sort of helps you with people who already like you and hurts you with people who already don’t.

She may become a distraction from Mr. Trump’s daily appearances and statements, which will probably get on his nerves. I wonder if his people are already telling her: Thanks, you’ve done exactly what we wanted and you can go home now. She won’t want to—this is her comeback tour. If she stays on the stump Mr. Trump’s people may ask her to stay on message. She’s heard that before. She was invented by an establishment playing Dr. Frankenstein; the monster could turn on Dr. Trumpenstein too.

The clever thing she did in her remarks was to bring up Phyllis Schlafly, still a generally uncredited force in the making of modern conservatism and a brave woman. Mrs. Schlafly supports Mr. Trump because she believes the conservative thing to do about a rotting edifice—the Washington political establishment—is to tear it down. Mr. Trump will “defeat the king-makers,” Mrs. Schlafly told I’d note that for those who admire the conservative philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, this sounds radically at odds with his frequent counsel of restraint and respect for history.

But Mrs. Schlafly’s view, too, has Burkean antecedents. When he thought something so corrupt as to be destructive of British character and national life, he went at it root and branch, as he did with the East India Company, which existed at the heart of and was a symbol of the British establishment. He challenged imperial practices, which is to say imperial corruptions. The point here, again, is that what is at issue in the party right now is not the end of conservatism but what a conservative approach would consist of at this point in history.

What Mr. Trump really needs is to be endorsed not by Mrs. Palin but by a political figure with stature, some sane member or members or administrations past who could lend him credibility. He needs a gravitas injection. Trumpism suffers among its critics for a reputation for intellectual carelessness—it’s all political joyriding. Mrs. Palin’s presence does nothing to knock that criticism down, and in fact underscores it.

To a larger point. Eventually in this campaign some candidate is going to have to address Donald Trump and his rise in a thoughtful, serious way. The obvious one is Jeb Bush, by virtue of his name and its association with the way the party used to be—the old, orderly conservatism. Why doesn’t he do it? He insults Mr. Trump—“a jerk,” “unhinged.” He told the Journal’s Mary Kissel this week: “Donald Trump’s not a serious candidate.” Mr. Bush uncorks witless, prefab soundbites: Mr. Trump is a “chaos candidate.” What does that even mean? Mr. Trump’s burly supporters wouldn’t mind a little disruption, an exploding of the elites—that is, chaos.

Why not make a serious argument? Jeb especially has little to lose—Mr. Trump’s people will never like him—and, potentially, much to gain in terms of his own standing.

Here’s where he could start:

What is Trumpism? Define it.

What’s wrong with Trumpism? Tell us. Is it a threat? To what?

Is it an attitude and not a plan? In a country split down the middle between leftish and rightish, why would it be harmful to have a new category?

If Mr. Trump is not a conservative, why is that bad? That is, what’s good about conservatism? Why is it pertinent and necessary? If the GOP base is a big, broad jumble that includes people reliant on entitlements who also see progressive social ambitions as destructive to the nation, how does conservatism speak to them?

What do you imagine a Trump presidency would look like? His supporters think he’ll go in there and clean out the stables. Would he? Could he? Can you?

What’s wrong with a little disorder? Does Trumpism enliven our political life with zest and unpredictability, or does it diminish our political life with unthinking emotionalism and shallowness?

Why is it important that a president have previous governmental experience? (Here I will add that I have seen longtime officeholders start out with fire and idealism, only in time to learn too well what isn’t possible. “We can’t get that through.” “We lost on that one last time.” They quietly give up; their sense of reality becomes a lethargic pessimism. Mr. Trump, new to political office, would not know what’s impossible. Leaders like that, if they also have talent, wisdom, popularity and organization, can occasionally make the impossible happen. Is it worth the chance?)

Most important, did Mr. Trump come from nowhere? Did the GOP establishment make any mistakes the past 15 years? If so, how can the damage be repaired? Was the Republican elite, like the Democratic one, essentially uninterested in the eroding power and position of the American working class? Were GOP leaders insensitive, cynical and selfish regarding public disapproval of and anxieties about illegal immigration?

What do you see when you look at Trumpism? Aside from what Robert Oppenheimer saw when the bomb exploded: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Is Trumpism in part a hopeful tendency, or just a throwing in of the towel?

Imagine such a speech—a serious, respectful, historically grounded one.

And why not? History is serious. It isn’t just the beeps and bops of daily events in a political year, it has to do with major outcomes in the life of a people. This moment is part of the political history of the United States.

Have some imagination! Sarah Palin just entered the picture. This will make people hungrier than ever for thoughtful, candid, sober reflection. Someone has to be as big as history.

The High Cost of a Bad Reputation Life lessons that Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz should have learned decades ago.

This isn’t what the column’s about, but should be said: It was strange Tuesday night to see the Republican chosen to give the State of the Union response go after the front-runner in her party’s presidential primary. But then this is a strange year. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said that during “anxious times,” the party should not follow “the angriest voices.” She didn’t name Donald Trump but later said her remark was “partially” aimed at him.

It was equally strange to see Ms. Haley so bitterly criticized afterward by Trump’s supporters. Ann Coulter tweeted: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.” (The governor is the U.S.-born daughter of immigrants from India.) Some oafish congressman said Ms. Haley is insufficiently conservative but at least “beautiful.”

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Here’s why the criticisms are strange. Ms. Haley has every right to her reasonable and mildly stated views. Mr. Trump is no victim—he dishes it out, he can take it. And Ms. Haley is a popular, moderate-conservative woman who is a successful two-term governor. Do Republicans not realize they need more such women, who put up with a great deal and deserve respect, and that for years as a party they’ve had a woman problem? More immediately, do they not realize it is good to have a sunny, well-balanced woman as the momentary face of their party? The other faces, the presidential contenders, are running around like rabid squirrels throwing nuts at each other in the dark. It’s not a good look. In appearing to be and acting like a normal human being, Ms. Haley did more for the party in 20 minutes than they have in two months. So go Nikki

With one caveat. She later revealed that, like an obedient person not quite in tune with the spirit of the times, she had cleared her remarks with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Ugh. Never clear your work with the guys in Washington, and if they tell you that’s the price of making the speech, don’t make it—and tell people why. Clear your thoughts with no one, like a classy independent woman.

What this column is about starts with how Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz have both recently learned the same two lessons. The first is that it is not at all pleasant to face a competitor who’s as tough and mean as you are. In each case that competitor is Donald Trump.

For Mr. Cruz the lesson hit home with the damage, however small or significant, caused by Mr. Trump’s putting forward the issue of Mr. Cruz’s constitutional eligibility, due to birth in Canada, for the presidency. Mr. Trump was particularly devilish: He didn’t insist Mr. Cruz was ineligible but simply said, with an air of mock concern, that a President Cruz could bog the country down in years of court challenges. This was primo Doubt-Casting, aimed at giving potential Cruz supporters reservations.

As for Mrs. Clinton, she has clearly been rattled by Mr. Trump’s merciless resurrection of her alleged complicity in the sometimes brutal handling of women involved in her husband’s dramas. This reminds everyone of—and introduces young voters, who were children during the Gennifer Flowers through Monica Lewinsky stories to—the whole sordid underside of Clintonism. Mrs. Clinton clearly wasn’t expecting it, and she bobbled. She has never gone up against a competitor like Mr. Trump.

The second thing she and Mr. Cruz are both learning, I suspect, is something most people learn by their 20s: It matters what people think of you. It’s important that people have a high opinion of your essential integrity, trustworthiness and good faith. It matters that they like you. Mr. Cruz, when challenged by Mr. Trump, could have used some backup from prominent Republicans, but they didn’t throw him a lifeline. John McCain: “I am not a constitutional scholar on that, but I think it’s worth looking into.” You know why Mr. Cruz had no backup? Because almost no one who works with him likes him. They haven’t experienced him as a trustworthy person of good faith. They waited, as people do, for a chance to hurt him, and when they got it they did.

Mrs. Clinton’s reputational problems are evident in this week’s polls. On Tuesday, Monmouth University had her trailing Bernie Sanders by 14 points in New Hampshire. Quinnipiac had her down by five in Iowa. The Des Moines Register poll has her ahead there, but by only two points. The caucus is still two weeks away, but if Mrs. Clinton’s campaign isn’t sinking, it’s obviously struggling.

Democrats who like her all say the same thing: She’s having trouble because she’s not really good at campaigning. That’s true as far as it goes. She is especially poor at the podium, where, when she wants to emphasize an applause line, her voice becomes loud, flat and harassing to the ear. She lately reminds me of the landlady yelling up the stairs that your kids left their bikes in the hall again. Literally that’s how it sounds: “And we won’t let them roll back the progress we’ve made. Your kids left their bikes in the hall.”

But a lack of talent isn’t all of it. Bernie Sanders isn’t all of it either. His appeal has three parts. The first is ideology. Barack Obama’s party has become a more leftist one, and Mr. Sanders’s leftism is sincere, long-standing, and has a kind of clarity to it, a lucid crudeness. He’ll break up the banks and make Wall Street bleed. The second is antipathy to Mrs. Clinton, even a lack of the old affection. I’m not seeing the fervor for her one saw in 2008. Where is the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit? The third appears to be affection for Bernie—the underdog, the guy who doesn’t have a machine, who genuinely seems to hold the views he claims to hold. Even I like him. He’s like some old guy in Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!”: “I’ve got the answer, it’s in this book by Karl Marx!”

The real problem for Mrs. Clinton is that so many people do not find her to be a person of reliable integrity. It’s not more complicated than that, really—her character is not admired. It’s all in the polls. In August, a Quinnipiac poll had 61% of respondents saying they do not consider her honest and trustworthy. In October, Quinnipiac reported that swing-state voters regarded her as the least trustworthy of all the candidates, in both parties.

After 23 years at the highest levels of public life, Mrs. Clinton has become encrusted by scandal, from her part in her husband’s dramas straight through to Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and the emails, in connection with which she may be indicted. She brings scandal with her, always has. I would be surprised if many people were not thinking: “Do we really want to go back to all that again, knowing it never ends, knowing there will be another scandal, that all we have to do is wait?”

Maybe she’ll gut it out. But maybe it’s like 2008 again, a reverse Sally Field: They don’t like me, they really don’t like me.

The GOP Establishment’s Civil War A free-for-all between Christie, Rubio, Cruz and others, while Trump hovers above it all.

What everyone’s waiting for is the winnowing. New Hampshire and Iowa will force some Republican candidates out. When we know who’s still in we’ll have a surer sense of the contours of the race.

It is still true that the party has never had a year like this, with the ground shifting beneath its feet. It’s hard to see this clearly because on the surface the things you expect to see happening are happening.

The candidates are starting to throw hard punches. They’re all trying to show they can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee—a necessary talent if you make it to the general election. No point in hand-wringing or telling them to stop on the grounds that what they’re doing will produce, for the Democrats, a badly bloodied GOP nominee.

Marco Rubio

Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio

Best and worst have come from Chris Christie, who has a way of keeping things lively. Earlier he counseled his fellow contenders not to savage each other—don’t waste your ammo, keep your eyes on the prize. Good advice. This week Marco Rubio’s PAC unloaded a spot slamming Mr. Christie on the old charge he embraced President Obama during Hurricane Sandy. The governor answered Wednesday on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. He called Mr. Rubio “a first-term United States senator who has never had a tough race.” He continued: “This guy’s been spoon-fed every victory he’s ever had in his life. That’s the kind of person that we want to put on stage against Hillary Clinton? I don’t think so. She’ll pat him on the head and then cut his heart out.” It was wonderfully colorful and malicious and reminded me of Sen. Bob Kerrey, who said of Bill Clinton in 1992 that he wouldn’t win in November because he hadn’t served in Vietnam: “He’s going to get opened up like a soft peanut.”

Democratic presidential primaries in those days were fierce. They’re not anymore, because the new Democratic Party, the one of the progressive left, has only a single unifying principle: winning. Hillary Clinton’s opponents haven’t laid a glove on her, and won’t.

Mr. Rubio has turned stern and indignant, as if he’s decided the base is angry so he’ll enact anger too. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, he darkly alleges, are “isolationist candidates” whose intent is “weakening our military and intelligence capabilities.” Mr. Paul responded by comparing Mr. Rubio to Rahm Emanuel.

More touchingly, Jeb Bush again warned the base about Donald Trump. “It’s very fun to talk about the theatrics,” he said on “Morning Joe.” Mr. Trump has tapped into “angst and anger,” but “his views are not the views of a conservative.”

Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t care if he’s classically conservative. Doctrinal purity is not the story this year. The GOP base is a big jumble.

Democrats are likely less unified than they think. On the rightward and leftward edges of both parties they hate political correctness, illegal immigration, Wall Street.

A new playbook is emerging while some contenders seem to be reading from the old playbook and wondering why the plays they’re calling aren’t working.

And the GOP is struggling. In Virginia the state Republican Party wants a so-called loyalty oath in the March 1 presidential primary. Virginia is an open-primary state—any registered voter can vote in either primary—but the GOP apparently wants to discourage independents and Democrats from voting for Mr. Trump. So they’ve decided voters should sign a statement of affiliation with the GOP before they get to cast a ballot. This is so idiotic it’s almost unbelievable. When Democrats and independents want to vote in your primary you should be happy. Politics is a game of addition! You want headlines that say “Massive GOP Turnout.” You don’t greet first-time voters with an oath but with cookies, ginger ale and balloons. Ronald Reagan reached out to Democrats in 1984: “Come too, come walk with me.” We still speak of Reagan Democrats.

I do not understand the inability or refusal of Republican leaders to take Mr. Trump seriously. They take his numbers seriously—they can read a poll—but they think, as Mr. Bush said, that his support is all about anger, angst and theatrics. That’s part of the story, but the other, more consequential part has to do with real policy issues. The establishment refuses to see that, because to admit it is to implicate themselves and their leadership. Political consultants can’t see it because they don’t think issues matter—not to them and certainly not to the dumb voters.

But issues do matter, and Mr. Trump has functioned this year not as a great communicator or great compromiser but as the great disrupter. He brags that he has brought up great questions and forced other candidates to face them and sometimes change their stands—and he has. He changed the debate on illegal immigration. He said he’d build a wall and close the border and as the months passed and his competitors saw his surge, they too were suddenly, clearly, aggressively for ending illegal immigration.

Mr. Trump touched an important nerve in opposing the political correctness that has angered the American people for a quarter century. He changed the debate when he asked for a pause in Muslim immigration until America “can figure out what’s going on.” In the age of terror, that looked suspiciously like common sense. Americans do not want America to become what Europe is becoming.

You only have to look at what is reported to have happened in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve to get a sense that Europe’s establishment, with its politically correct thinking, is losing control. Angela Merkel is a great lady and most of her leadership has been sound as a drum, but she will probably lose her job eventually because of her epic miscalculation in accepting more than a million Middle Eastern refugees.

Her decision was no doubt driven by heart and sympathy, but it reminds me of the fall of Margaret Thatcher. In 1989 Thatcher moved to impose a change in the British tax system. This caused resentment and then unrest. She wouldn’t back down, and the next year she fell. Years later she told me what she’d learned. People are afraid, she said; they live closer to the margins than we understand. When you propose a big change you can leave people feeling as if the rug is being pulled from under them. That’s a big thing to learn, and she spoke of it with humility.

She lost her job by being too tough. Ms. Merkel has imperiled hers by being too soft. But the lesson is the same: know how close to the edge people feel, how powerless, and respect their anxiety. Don’t look down on it, and them.

Back to the Republicans. It reflects badly on the party that Donald Trump—whom one journalist this week characterized as a guy running around with his hair on fire—had to become the party’s 2016 thought leader.

Bernie Sanders has, in a way, had the wit to see this, which is why he said he is reaching out to Trump supporters.

Reaching out. What a concept.

Will the New Year’s Tumult Trump the Old? The biggest question for 2016 is whether the Republican Party splits apart.

In 2016—soon, in just about a month—we’ll find out if Donald Trump voters vote. They say they’re voters and not just rally-goers. In Iowa on Feb. 1 and New Hampshire on Feb. 9, we’ll know if it’s a movement or a moment.

We are going to learn a lot pretty quickly.

In the next few months we’ll find out who emerges as the not-Trump, or not-Trumps. We’ll see a battle. If it is not resolved we’ll have a clearer sense of whether this thing is going to go to the floor of the convention in Cleveland in July. In Washington, what we sloppily but handily call the GOP establishment refers to this possibility as a “brokered convention.” They do this because they think they’ll be the brokers. Will they? Or will they be combatants? If it gets to the floor the correct term will be “open convention,” in the Katie-bar-the-door sense of wild and woolly.

TRUMP16If at some point Mr. Trump appears to be on a sure glide path to the nomination, will the party establishment begin to bolt? If so, what will that look like? If Mr. Trump is done in and his supporters perceive it as the dark work of an underhanded establishment, will they bolt? What will that look like? Will it mean they go home, stay there and refuse to come out in November? Or will they mount a third party with Mr. Trump, having changed his mind once again, at the top? If that happened—here the unknowables and the potential for drama begin to spin out in creative and unexpected directions—could each of three parties garner enough support to produce an Electoral College deadlock? That would be resolved by the House, where Republicans will likely continue to control the majority of state delegations. Would GOP representatives go for the establishment Republican or the third-party Republican?

I have not seen a political cycle so confounding in my lifetime, and it could continue into a year of the most historic kind. If you love politics—the excitement, the unknowability, the to-and-fro—this is the year for you. If you take unhappy U.S. political trends seriously—the shallowness, the restiveness, the division of our polity—you will feel legitimate concern.

We could see a great party split in two. That, I think, is what I’m seeing among the Republicans, a slow-motion break. The question is whether it will play out over the next few cycles or turn abrupt and fiery in this one. Some in Washington speak giddily of the prospect, wondering aloud if the new party’s logo should be a lion or a gazelle. But America’s two-party system has reigned almost since its beginning, and it has kept us from much woe. It has provided stability, reliability and, yes, progress. The breaking or splintering of one of those parties would be an epochal event. Ross Perot in the 1990s was a one-off; the party soon enough healed back into one. Mr. Trump may be a one-off, but the divisions he’s revealed—on how on-the-ground and unprotected people feel about illegal immigration, on the deeper and more dangerous implications of political correctness, on a host of economic and cultural issues—will not, I suspect, be resolved so easily.

If the GOP breaks it will be bitter. The establishment thinks they are saving the party from the vandals—from Trumpian know-nothingism. But Republicans on the ground think those in the establishment were the vandals, with their open borders, donor-class interests and social liberalism.

The distance between the top of the party and the bottom has been growing for years, at least since 2008. The bonds between the two have stretched and stretched, and this year they began to snap. That’s the story of the year, that the snapping became obvious. Mr. Trump and the Trumps of the future are the result, not the cause. The establishment does not see this. They think it’s about him. It’s about them.

Finally, briefly and befitting an end-of-year column, what did I get right and wrong in 2015?

A year ago I said Mitt Romney should not run. “This is a moment in history that demands superior political gifts. . . . Mitt Romney does not have them. He never did. He’s good at life and good at business and good at faith. He is politically clunky, always was and always will be. His clunkiness is seen in the way he leaked his interest in running: to mega-millionaires and billionaires in New York. ‘Tell your friends.’ ” I still think that was right. Whatever is ailing the party now, he is not the answer.

A month later I said I didn’t see Jeb Bush as the front-runner but just another candidate, and one making “a poor impression.” Mr. Bush at that point was “spending much of his time in The Rooms—offices and conference rooms—with millionaires and billionaires.” He spoke their language, his family name provided entrée, his fundraising prowess was impressive. However: “There’s something tentative and joyless in Mr. Bush’s public presentations. He isn’t mixing it up with voters or wading into the crowd. So far he is not good at the podium. His recent foreign-policy speech was both bland and jangly, and its one memorable statement—‘I am my own man’—was the kind of thing a candidate shouldn’t have to say.

“What is most missing so far is a fierce sense of engagement, a passionate desire to lead America out of the morass, a fiery—or Churchillian—certainty that he is the man for the moment. In its place we see a softer, wanner I’m smart, accomplished, know policy, and it’s my turn.

An October column said: “Jeb just isn’t very good at this.” I said his victory was impossible for me to envision. Still is.

In July I thought Scott Walker would be “highly competitive” for the nomination. He was not. In August I said Ted Cruz would get “deadlier as the number of candidates winnows down.” That seems to be bearing out.

When Mr. Trump announced in June, I knew he’d hit a powerful nerve but did not see him lasting as long as he has. He was a product of voter anger, contempt and lowering standards: “We’re entering Weimar, baby.” In time I saw his power. In August I noted: “The traditional mediating or guiding institutions within the Republican universe—its establishment, respected voices in conservative media, sober-minded state party officials—have little to no impact on Mr. Trump’s rise. Some say voices of authority should stand up to oppose him, which will lower his standing. But Republican powers don’t have that kind of juice anymore.” Traveling around the country, “my biggest sense is that political professionals are going to have to rethink ‘the base,’ reimagine it when they see it in their minds. . . . America is so in play,” and the base is “becoming a big, broad jumble that few understand.”

I asserted his appeal was not limited to Republicans. My highly scientific reason is that in talking to Trump supporters it often emerged that they were Democrats or independents.

Happy New Year; let’s get through it together.

In Celebration of Modest Christmases Past When families had less, when America had less, a single gift could make a lasting impression.

A long time ago in a country far, far away, America had less of everything and holidays were easier and more modest.

Only 50 and 60 years ago, well within human memory, Christmas was a plainer, simpler affair. Everyone—even the rich, but certainly the poor and in-between—had less. Because America had less. You’d get a sweater and socks instead of five toys, or five toys instead of 10. Technology was something that existed at places like NASA. No one’s wish list had a hoverboard, an iPad, or a brightly wrapped drone. There were more big families, whose children understood that even Santa couldn’t cover them all.

You could make gifts. Or you could buy one after saving up, and the recipient could guess the sacrifice involved. And because there were fewer gifts, the one you got made a big impression.

Christmas TreeAnd so a nod to the more modest Christmases of years past. These memories came with a declared or implied, “We didn’t have much, but . . .” And this was said not with resentment or self pity but a kind of pride and wistfulness.

For the New York businessman Vin Pica, one Christmas stands out. “All I wanted was a wooden Daniel Boone ‘musket,’ ” he says, like the one Fess Parker slung over his shoulder as he walked through the woods. “I mentioned it at dinner Christmas Eve, and my father mysteriously disappeared, and magically, the next morning, on Dec. 25, 1959, it was under the tree . . .”

Here is a friend of mine, from a large Irish Catholic family in New Jersey—seven kids, no money. She is in her 60s now, but still shy about revisiting those days. She doesn’t recall any specific gifts she received—“It wasn’t like we were going to get a smartphone, it wasn’t like that”—but she remembers the time the baby of the family, Cathy, age 5, let everyone know Santa was going to give her something very special.

But Cathy wouldn’t tell anyone what it was. On Christmas Eve, her resourceful mother finally told her to write Santa a thank-you note and put it under the tree. She did, and later her mother peeked at the note: Cathy thanked Santa for the “bride doll” that he had hidden for her in the bookcase. But it was Christmas Eve—the stores were closed. After Cathy went to bed, one of my friend’s other sisters remembered a pile of old dolls down in the basement. “We found a doll, cleaned it, found a dress, washed and ironed,” my friend recalls. “We combed the hair, we gave it earrings and jewelry.” At dawn, Cathy ran down the stairs and found in the back of the bookcase the beautiful doll she knew would be there.

Susan Woodbury and I were best friends in Massapequa, N.Y., when we were 12. All she wanted when she was 10 or 11 was a wooden guitar. In the weeks before Christmas, she ransacked the house, looking under beds, steeling herself for disappointment. “My mother rarely gave me what I wanted, but what she thought I should have,” Susan says. Then she found it, in the back of her parents’ closet: “It was a blond-wood guitar with this great knotty finish on the back, and simple strings.” Christmas morning it was under the tree, covered by a towel. Susan enacted surprise. “I should have won an Academy award.”

The New York attorney Lloyd Green was a kid in the 1970s in Borough Park, Brooklyn. “My favorite Hanukkah memory was my folks gave me Strat-O-Matic Baseball as a gift, a stats-filled board game. Come Shabbat afternoon, my friends and I would play it for hours, until we had to attend afternoon worship. The game gave me a lifelong appreciation for baseball, and for numbers telling a story. . . . Mom, Dad, and Hanukkah, thank you.”

Kathy Enright and I were in high school together. Her father was in the Navy and often away. “When I was 8 years old in Hacketstown, N.J.,” Kathy recalls, “there was a Pink Lady bike by Schwinn in the window of a store. I wanted it so badly and my mother said, ‘We can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.’ Mostly I got shoes and socks and underwear, things that we needed that were practical.” And yet that Christmas Eve, “I walked into the living room and my Pink Lady bike was in front of the Christmas tree. I rode it until I graduated high school.”

The stories got me thinking this week of the little book that has the best Christmas scene since Charles Dickens, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith. Francie and her brother, Neeley, are in grade school. Their family can’t afford a Christmas tree, but then a chance arises. The guy who sells Christmas trees down the block always has a few scrawny ones left by midnight Christmas Eve, and to get rid of them he has an annual Christmas Tree Throw. Poor kids and poor fathers gather on the street every year, and the salesman heaves a tree up in the air—if you can catch it and don’t fall, it’s yours. Francie and Neeley stand on the cold, snowy pavement, steady themselves, catch a tree . . . and keep their footing. It’s theirs. They march it triumphantly upstairs to their tenement apartment, and on the way the neighbors, hearing the commotion, poke their heads out their doors, saying, “Congratulations!” and “Merry Christmas!” And Francie’s family stood the tree in a big tin bucket. There were no ornaments, “but the big tree standing there was enough.”

My favorite gift of childhood was so surprising and moving and big. I was 9 or 10 and badly wanted a desk. I needed a desk because I had been selling neighborhood subscriptions to a local weekly newspaper called, as I remember it, the Massapequa Post. My success convinced me that I would someday be a great newspaper executive. I noticed in the old movies that played on channel 9 that what were then called career women—Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn played those parts—often had a long, triangular nameplate on their desks. I made one for myself out of cardboard at school. Now all I needed was the desk. But such a piece of furniture was too expensive, too much to ask for in a family of nine.

I was in a religious phase, however, and prayed. And on Christmas morning, there beside the tree was a rough, oblong piece of beige plywood stapled or nailed to two pieces of plywood supporting it on either side. And if you looked at it with imagination, it looked exactly like . . . a desk. I was in heaven. I got a kitchen chair, sat at the desk and closed my eyes and thanked God. Then, suddenly, with my eyes closed, in my imagination, I saw it. Everything. There was a manger in the darkness and a man and a woman, and it was cold and there were stars in the sky, and hills, and wise men came with staffs and gazed in wonder. I saw it all, as if on film in a newsreel. It hit me like an electric bolt. I thought: “It’s all true. It really happened. I just saw it.”

I never forgot it, of course, and in later years, teaching catechism classes, I’d say at the end, “All you have to do is remember: It’s all true. It really happened. Just keep that in your mind.”

To be given a moment like that and take it through your life—that was some kind of gift.

Primary Preview: The Brawl vs. the Blob A role reversal gives us rambunctious Republicans and deathly Democrats.

At a Christmas party in New York the other night an esteemed statesman stood to toast his friends. The bipartisan group leaned forward: His toasts are warm and witty and often capture the meaning of whatever is going on. He paused, looked out and began: “This time next year it will all be over.” There was a half-beat of silence, and then laughter and applause swept the room.

He didn’t have to say he was talking about the election.

What a year of wonders. For a good portion of it there were three Republican presidential candidates who, if you added up their polling numbers, had the support of more than half the voters—and they had never, not one of them, won a political office in their lives. On-the-ground Republicans surveying the past 15 years of unwon wars, great recession, feeble recovery and a world on fire, thought: “Who gave us this world? The professional political class. So it’s time to reach outside politics and consider other kinds of experience and attainment.”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

Another wonder: The political parties swapped their longtime roles, styles and ways of being. The Democrats became the party of primogeniture, the Republicans of rebellion. The Democrats were once alive, chaotic and brawling, the Republicans staid and orderly. Not anymore. It is the Democrats who are accepting a coronation, the Republicans who said no to ancestral claims. The deflation of Jeb Bush is a huge story. With his failure to rise, the consultant class and shock-and-awe fundraising took it on the chin. Jeb was not the answer to any question the base was asking.

If the rise of Donald Trump continues, the Republican Party is either breaking in two or changing its nature—either way a huge political development. If it breaks in two it will be because the bottom pushed away hard from the top, which will have to decide where it goes. If the party holds together it will be a more populist one, at least as long as Mr. Trump dominates—more liberal on spending, less interventionist on foreign policy, if we go by his rhetoric.

Mr. Trump is compared to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, but those comparisons are wrong in substance. Goldwater represented a clear, coherent but extreme conservatism, at least by the standards of the day; he pushed conservatism further than the nation, including Republicans, wanted to go. McGovernism was experienced as pure, unadulterated left-liberalism—philosophically coherent but extreme, and further than the nation, including Democrats, wanted to go.

Mr. Trump is different. His views are not too far in one ideological direction; they go in no particular and every direction. His grab bag of stands, to give it its due, reflects a rough awareness of the historical and political moment we’re in. But it’s not a clear set of beliefs brought to their extreme, it’s a bunch of beliefs brought forward by a man who bops to extremes and back again.

Can he win the nomination? Yes. If the year has taught us anything it’s that we don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s leading in every primary state. Maybe that will change; maybe his deficit with women will turn out to matter. He could fail to win the Iowa caucuses in six weeks, which would leave him dinged. The past six months have been nothing but one headline: “Trump is Winning.” An Iowa loss would be “Trump Loses!” His mystique would be damaged and the damage could spread.

On the other hand he could triumph in New Hampshire, where he continues well ahead in the polls. And he could win that open primary with support from independents. (It is not only Republicans who would like to fire Washington.) In that case the headline would be “Trump Expands the Base—Trump Grows the Party!” That would make Trumpism less easy to dismiss, more like a movement than a mood.

Do Mr. and Mrs. Longtime Republican in the suburbs think a Trump victory would be a good or acceptable outcome? No? Then they’d better get ready to press the viable non-Trump candidates to stay, and all others to leave. If after New Hampshire Mr. Trump is triumphing, Republican candidates who aren’t going to make it should be pressed to sacrifice themselves to narrow the field and let the viable non-Trumps rise. Jeb Bush, by stepping down, could become what he wanted to be this year—a hero, a history changer, a man who enhanced his own and his family’s legacy.

But really, what a year. Nobody, not the most sophisticated expert watching politics up close all his life, knew or knows what’s going to happen. Does it go to the convention? Do Mr. Trump’s roarers turn out? Does he change history?

And no one saw it coming.

A last thought, on what we saw of the parties.

This week, about 18 million people watched the fifth Republican debate on CNN. It was the third-most-watched primary debate of all time. The first debate, on Fox News in August, broke all records with about 25 million viewers. All the debates in between were heavily watched. All featured fisticuffs, argument, real to-and-fro.

The Democrats in that time had two debates, with little fanfare, with a vibe of “please don’t watch.” It was less like public officials running for president than people in the witness protection program accidentally strolling onto a stage. In the second debate the stage was almost empty—front-runner Hillary Clinton, an aged Vermont socialist with Einstein hair, and a fit young heartthrob with nothing to lose and nothing to say.

The Republicans are out there on every show and get cuffed about. They expose themselves to the scrum every day and take all comers. Mrs. Clinton considering interview requests is like a queen pointing at necklaces arrayed on a jeweler’s pillow: “I’ll take that one, not that one. I’ll think about that one.”

The Republicans are finally, fitfully fighting out real issues—ISIS, privacy. Mrs. Clinton is forced to fight no one, makes pronouncements and glides on.

The Republicans draw censure with their big, bodacious brawl. The Democrats should draw it for not struggling, grappling. The Republican Party was told to make Jeb king. No, they thundered. When the Democratic Party was asked to do a coronation, they pulled on their forelocks, bowed and said, “Yes, sire, may I do anything else?”

This is not like the Democratic Party! It was once a big brass band marching through the streets—loud, dissonant, there. “I’m not a member of any organized party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” For generations Democrats repeated that line as a brag. They knew disorganized meant vital, creative, spontaneous, passionate—alive.

Now that party acts like this tidy, lifeless, fightless thing, a big, gray, dead-hearted, soul-killing blob. “I have the demographics,” it blobbily bellows, “I have the millennials.” Maybe it doesn’t have as much as it thinks. It is no honor to the Democratic Party that it is not fighting things through with a stage full of contenders this epochal year.

The Republicans are all chaos and incoherence, it’s true. But at least they’re alive. At least they’re fighting as if it matters.

A Rash Leader in a Grave Time Trump could bridge the divide between the elites and GOP voters. Instead, he’s deepening it.

As tribune of the base Donald Trump is successful and inadequate. You see it in the Muslim question. His strength is that he responds to and appears to share the concerns of those who are legitimately worried about whom we allow into the United States—our visa protocols, our vetting, our standards. This is a national-security issue. We have entered the age of ISIS-inspired and ISIS-directed attacks on the West. The latter (Paris) have tended to be bloodier than the former (San Bernardino), because they involve more operatives, more simultaneous targets, more weapons. Whether inspired or directed, the idea of future hits in the U.S.—and everyone, from the most sophisticated desk-jockey intel analyst in Washington to the receptionist at your dentist’s office, will tell you they believe more are coming—is very much on the public mind.

A Paris here would change everything, transposing a detached debate about strategy into a hot and immediate political exigency. There is the real danger events will outstrip sober decision making. The smartest thing I’ve heard the past few weeks was the suggestion that America figure out the most effective and constructive things it could do after a Paris-style attack, and start doing them now. I hope everyone who runs the country is thinking about this. They’d better have a plan.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump

But to Mr. Trump. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, said Monday that U.S. intelligence officers believe ISIS terrorists are attempting to use the Obama administration’s Syrian refugee program to enter the country themselves: “I believe 2015 will be seen as a watershed year in this long war—the year when our enemies gained an upper hand and when the spread of terror once again awoke the West.” The director of the FBI previously told Congress the U.S. cannot adequately vet the 10,000 Syrians the administration wants to accept.

Under the circumstances public concern is entirely warranted. Good on Mr. Trump for addressing it—and, in addressing it, forcing other candidates to come up with their plans. Bad on Mr. Trump—very bad—for doing it in his usual way. Colorfully, yes—this is a man who knows how to break through the clutter!—but crudely, seemingly off the top of his head, and using his mouth as a blunt instrument. He doesn’t think it through, doesn’t anticipate legitimate pushback, doesn’t try to persuade, only declares. And of course he was confusing and contradictory. We’ll ban all Muslims! Including U.S. citizens returning from an overseas trip? Yes! No! It’s only temporary, a pause. It’s not about religion, it’s about security! He ignores civic and cultural politesse when that politesse is not just old sissy stuff but a melting-pot tradition that exists for good reason. In defense of his stand he evokes FDR’s actions during World War II, which included putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. Mr. Trump seems to think that was a good thing because FDR did it. But it is regarded as an American embarrassment and a stain on FDR’s legacy. And this is not a Secret of History. Congress officially apologized for internment 27 years ago.

All of this forced us into the nonsensical but at this point compulsive media cycle in which Mr. Trump says something rash, the media pounce, and Republican contenders are told they must denounce him or forfeit their place among the just and the good. Mr. Trump then announces he is misunderstood—that in fact he loves women, Mexicans, Muslims, whoever he has offended this week. Oddly enough, I think he is sincere about this and feels genuinely injured. But one thing an effective leader must always do is know what can be misunderstood and guard against it, what can be misconstrued and used to paint you—and your followers—as bigoted. Leaders try hard not to let that happen. It is the due diligence of politics.

A continuing mystery of Mr. Trump is his failure to impose on himself political discipline. He has been front-runner for six months but he doesn’t act as if he has absorbed the fact that he could become the nominee. At this point he owes it to his country—he owes it to his own ambition!—to become disciplined in terms of statements and policy. It is possible for candidates to be vivid but careful, dramatic but responsible. When you’re winning you can’t just keep pulling it out of your orifices. Mr. Trump’s lack of discipline should worry his supporters. I know it doesn’t, but it should. Because indiscipline shows disrespect. And people pick up on it, they see it.

It is odd too that, as the longtime front-runner, he doesn’t attempt to reassure those who will have some impact on his future, such as state and national party leaders. In his daily actions he could continue to excite his base while subtly signaling to party elders that while he might be an unusual nominee he would, in some recognizable way, be a responsible one. Instead he ties them in knots each day and embarrasses them. That limits his popularity, lowers his ceiling of support, and reinforces the idea he’s an impetuous flake.

He tweets out taunts alerting party stalwarts to his continued popularity in the polls, and noting that while he does not intend to go third-party he certainly could. This is a form of blackmail: Nice little party you’ve got here. Shame if someone blew it up.

GOP leaders seem to be doing the only thing they can—watch the process play out and hope for good outcomes. Sooner or later, they hope, the field will winnow and it will be Mr. Trump with his 35% versus one, two or three non-Trumps who’ll fight over the 65%. Party leaders’ position is delicate. They are certain they cannot win the presidency with Mr. Trump as the candidate. And they know they can’t win the presidency if embittered Trump supporters stay home or bolt. They can’t win with him and can’t win without his people.

Meanwhile Mr. Trump’s supporters, like Mr. Trump himself, appear to care nothing for the GOP. They believe America is in danger and this is no time for party loyalty. In any case they haven’t felt that loyalty for years because the party has disappointed them for years. Mr. Trump is both the expression and a deepening cause of the party’s fissuring.

The biggest reason has been the distance—the chasm—between the party elite at the top, who are more or less for illegal immigration, and the bulk of the party on the ground, who are opposed. In this case there is a chasm between elites concerned that they personally will look bigoted if they take action and voters concerned about who comes into America in the age of ISIS. It is a split, a distance; it is primarily the fault of the top, not the bottom; and Mr. Trump, who through his popularity could choose to be a bridge across the distance is instead functioning as a deepener of it.

If the nominee is not decided in the primaries and everything is fought through at the convention—well, that will be some convention. In the old fashioned, fisticuffs sense.

Music in the Key of America Can we find an inspiring theme for next year’s presidential contest?

I mean this Thanksgiving column to go from a small fact to what I think a large truth. The small fact is that looking back now on an enjoyable book tour, a surprise was that a lot of people are interested in the specifics of how others work. Early on I was asked in an interview why I listen to movie music when I write, a habit of 25 years. One reason is that I love movie scores and have since childhood: When I didn’t understand all the dialogue the music would make clear what was being said. The other reason is that film scores exist to help the story along; they don’t yank you away from your work, your thought. Other music—an opera, a great Broadway show, an old album you love—intrudes and, with its power, summons you away. But movie music is the river on which the story sails—and all writers, in whatever field or discipline, are telling a story.

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)

A scene from ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946) with, from left, Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March.

When the interview aired, a small Twitter community sprang up with people saying they too listen to movie music as they write, and asking what I listen to and offering recommendations. One suggested Ennio Morricone’s theme from “The Untouchables.” Yes—the rousing music when the cops mount horses to catch the mobsters at the bridge. When I hear it I always think: If I listened to this each morning, every day would be a heroic one. From @michaelkaplun came the soundtrack to “Rudy,” by Jerry Goldsmith—“a little fighting Irish inspiration.” “The Last of the Mohicans” was suggested by @Go_Beach. Someone put forth the score of “Out of Africa” by John Barry, someone else the “Patton” theme, again by the great Jerry Goldsmith. From an email friend came the song the soldiers sing after the Battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V.” Yes—a soulful, soldierly hymn.

I want to mention a few I listen to a lot, and then get to something maybe deeper behind the music. I love Alex North’s score from the old Kirk Douglas movie “Spartacus.” It’s rich and varied. The music used in the scene of the freed slaves coming together in community and the love theme together remind me of the sweetness of life and the ever-present possibility of valor. Leonard Bernstein’s score for “On the Waterfront” is dramatic, crashing, tender—to me it speaks of cities. It, and the screenplay, reminds me of the importance of everyday human endeavor—that even if you think you’re just a beat-up nobody, a former contender with a one-way ticket to Palookaville, you can find within yourself a nobility you never guessed was there.

The scores of Kevin Costner pictures are often better than the movies themselves. The soundtrack of “Wyatt Earp,” by James Newton Howard, gets some play in my house. Lately I’m listening again to the score of that not fully appreciated masterpiece “Empire of the Sun,” from the opening’s sweet-voiced boys choir to the more dramatic music of terror and reconciliation. But there, as with “On the Waterfront,” I sometimes get yanked into memories of brilliant dialogue, in this case from Tom Stoppard’s genius of a screenplay: “I thought it was Mrs. Victor’s soul.”

An acceptance speech at a great national convention should sound like the score of “A River Runs Through It,” by Mark Isham, and like the end of Norman Maclean’s great book on which the movie was based: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.” Read those last words aloud. They are music.

But for me, always, the greatest movie score, the one I listen to when I need it, is the most perfect pairing of story and music in the history of film: “The Best Years of Our Lives,” composed by Hugo Friedhofer. Three men coming home from World War II wind up by chance in the nose of a beat-up bomber, itself heading home to the junkyard. Suddenly at dawn, after a long night’s flight, they see America unfurling below them—the Midwest, and now Boone City, their (fictional) home. There’s the stadium where one of them played high school ball. There’s the bank where one worked. The music soars. I’m telling you, you hear in it: America. The men look down at what they’d left years before, and it’s still there, and they wonder what their lives will be like now, having been for so long and in so many ways so far away . . .

A left-wing cable anchor once told me he couldn’t watch that scene and hear that music and not cry. I said, me too.

I think I’m admitting I listen to movie music not only because I love it and it helps the story along. I listen also for the reason a friend, a journalist, put his finger on when he told me of a setting he uses on Spotify. It plays the music he loves at the speed of his exercise: “It’s like it’s creating a movie soundtrack just for you. When I do this I feel like I should stop my run and save a kitten from a burning building, or make a certain speech on a tarmac before seeing my girl off one last time.” It rouses him. It takes him outside the dailiness we all live in and brings to mind the idea of valor. It reminds him of courage. Which, seen in a particular way, is another word for love.

Movie music does that for me. It stirs me. It is derived from an American art form, film, and reminds me of the America I love as I do my work, which mostly deals with the daily muck of politics and culture, which is not always so lovable.

The larger point, I suppose, is this: A year from now we will have chosen our new president. Which means we have just less than a year to get it right.

We all need to be stirred. We need to know and believe the breakthrough is possible, the fight against the odds will end in victory, something good is just around the corner.

We don’t need the drab, manipulative ideological arguments we so often get, and we don’t need the shaming that comes from so much of our political discourse—you’re insensitive, racist, sexist, check your privilege, quit appropriating my culture. We don’t need the two things we so often get from our government and its practitioners, the defensive whine and the impenetrable babble.

There is a hunger to be reminded we’re all in this together, that this thing we’re all part of is, in fact, a great and noble project.

We all want to be moved by the public acts of public men and women. We all want to be stirred by the soundtrack of the nation we love. We all want a leader who is equal to the music.

I hope next Thanksgiving we will think perhaps we got one.

A happy Thanksgiving weekend to the great and fabled nation that is still the hope of the world.

Uncertain Leadership in Perilous Times Paris is different, but the president can’t seem to change.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—

In the days after Paris Emily Dickinson’s poem kept ringing through my mind as I tried to figure out what I felt—and, surprisingly, didn’t feel. I did not, as the facts emerged and the story took its full size, feel surprised. Nor did I feel swept by emotion, as I had in the past. The sentimental tweeting of that great moment in “Casablanca” when they stand to sing “La Marseillaise” left me unmoved. I didn’t feel anger, really. I felt grave, as if something huge and terrible had shifted and come closer. Did you feel this too?

Outside the Stade de France

Police investigators outside the Stade de France in Paris.

After the pain of previous terror incidents, from 9/11 straight through to Madrid 2004 (train bombings, 191 dead), London 2005 (suicide bombers, 52 dead) and Paris 10 months ago (shootings, 17 dead), the focus was always on the question: What will the leaders—the political and policy elite—think? This attack immediately carried a different question: What will the people think, Mr. and Mrs. Europe on the street, Mom and Pop watching in America? What are the thoughts and conclusions of normal people who are not blinkered by status, who can see things clear?

I feel certain that in the days after the attack people were thinking: This isn’t going to stop. These primitive, ferocious young men will not stop until we stop them. The question is how. That’s the only discussion.

Madrid and London took place during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and could be taken as responses to Western actions. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was in its way a story about radical Islamic antipathy to the rough Western culture of free speech. But last week’s Paris attack was different. It was about radical, violent Islam’s hatred of the West and desire to kill and terrorize its people. They will not be appeased; we won’t talk them out of it at a negotiating table or by pulling out of Iraq or staying out of Syria. They will have their caliphate, and they will hit Europe again, as they will surely hit us again, to get it.

So again, the only question: What to do?

On this issue the American president is, amazingly, barely relevant. The leaders and people of Europe and America will not be looking to him for wisdom, will, insight or resolve. No commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces can be wholly irrelevant, but to the extent one can be, Mr. Obama is. He has misjudged ISIS from the beginning—they were not, actually, the junior varsity—to the end. He claimed last week, to George Stephanopoulos, that ISIS has been “contained.” “I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” he said just before Paris blew.

After the attacks Mr. Obama went on TV, apparently to comfort us and remind us it’s OK, he’s in charge. He prattled on about violence being at odds with “universal values.” He proceeded as if unaware that there are no actually universal values, that right now the values of the West and radical Islam are clashing, violently, and we have to face it. The mainstream press saw right through him. At the news conference, CNN’s Jim Acosta referred to the “frustration” of “a lot of Americans,” who wonder: “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” The president sighed and talked down to him—to us. He has a strategy and it’s the right one and it’s sad you can’t see it.

Let him prattle on about climate change as the great threat of our time.

All he can do at this point is troll the GOP with the mischief of his refugee program. If he can’t work up a passion about radical Islamic violence, at least he can tie the Republicans in knots over whether they’re heartless bigots who want to prevent widows and children from taking refuge from the Syrian civil war.

This is a poor prioritizing of what faces us. The public is appropriately alarmed about exactly who we might be letting in. It would be easy, and commonsensical, to follow their prompting and pause the refugee program, figure out how to screen those seeking entrance more carefully, and let in only the peaceable. If that takes time, it takes time.

If Mr. Obama had wisdom as opposed to pride and a desire to smack around the GOP—a visit to Capitol Hill this week showed me he’s thinking a lot more about them than they are about him—he would recognize the refugee issue as a distraction from the most urgent priorities.

Those would include planning for and agreeing on how to deal with both the reality and the aftermath of a parade of possible horribles on which we should once again concentrate—anything from shootings in Times Square to suicide bombings in Washington to a biological device in, say, Greeley, Colo. It would include planning for any military activity that might likely follow such an event or events.

If what we are experiencing now results in an epic collision, are we ready?

Deeper attention now will go to candidates for the presidency. Hillary Clinton Thursday delivered a speech on her strategy to face the current crisis; it sounded a lot like Mr. Obama’s strategy, whatever that is.

But Paris should have impact on the Republican debate that has cropped up the past month about defense policy. It’s been approached as a question of spending. That may quickly come to look like the wrong approach.

Exactly what is needed now in terms of America’s defense, what is needed to deal with a possible parade of horribles? What might be needed down the road? There is a possible grim short term, and a possible grim long term. Who is thinking all this through? Are they getting the resources they need?

The Director of the FBI, James Comey, doesn’t feel he has the manpower to do what needs to be done to find and track bad guys.

What’s going on with intelligence, what’s their need?

There will be powerful public support now for spending—wisely, discerningly—whatever is needed for the short term, and a possible long term.

Finally, continued travels through the country show me that people continue to miss Ronald Reagan’s strength and certitude. In interviews and question-and-answer sessions, people often refer to Reagan’s “optimism.” That was his power, they say—he was optimistic.

No, I say, that wasn’t his power and isn’t what you miss. Reagan’s power was that he was confident. He was confident that whatever the problem—the economy, the Soviets, the million others—he could meet it, the American people could meet it, and our system could meet it. The people saw his confidence, and it allowed them to feel optimistic. And get the job done.

What people hunger for now from their leaders is an air of shown and felt confidence: I can do this. We can do it.

Who will provide that? Where will it come from? Isn’t it part of what we need in the next president?