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.”
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.