It is increasingly looking like a battle between two New Yorkers for the Presidency this November – Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump. This could be the oddest election in recent history.
To be sure, each has to win nomination. Hillary’s South Carolina showing shows that Sanders’ appeal is limited, while Trump continues to ride high in the polls against weak opposition. Assuming by mid-March it looks like Hillary vs. the Donald, what then? In the last week or so I’ve had a number of conversations about such a match up and have heard opinions that run the gamut from a disaster for the GOP to a battle Hillary can’t win. Nobody really knows; this is a unique election. So en lieu of a prediction, here’s a few things I think such a race would mean:
1. Conservatives would be the big losers. While Trump’s opposition to immigration and his nationalism are music to the ears of many on the right sick of political correctness and multiculturalism, there is nothing in Trump’s past that suggest he has any sympathy for the conservative agenda. To people like the folk at the National Review or Red State, Trump vs. Hillary would be legitimate cause for deep depression.
2.Trump will run against the establishment, pointing out how the middle class has been squeezed for thirty years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations; indeed, he’ll personalize it to present himself as an anecdote to a poisonous Clinton-Bush dynasty. The appeal of populist anger is hard to measure; I suspect he has a relatively low ceiling and that fear and disgust at Trump will balance out the anger…but perhaps not!
3. Clinton or her surrogates will run an intensely negative campaign against Trump, cherry picking quotes, examples from his past, things he’s said on the campaign trail, with one message: “Is this the kind of person you trust to keep the country secure – is this the type of person you want representing the United States?” This will include statements from former military leaders and even Republicans. That avoids a frontal assault on Trump over policies or values – attacking him personally doesn’t seem to work – and instead lets Trump be his own enemy, with the voters asked to decide. Will it work? Well, if it doesn’t, welcome President Trump!
4. My guess is that this race would help Democrats win the Senate and make gains in the House. Many Republicans will be “meh” about Trump, and could depress the vote. Meanwhile, Democrats have to hope that fear of a Trump Presidency will bring out the party faithful. Clinton needs to continue the trend of high black voter turnout faithful to Democrats, and somehow she needs to win Millennial Sanders supporters who talk about Hillary with the same kind of disdain as her conservative critics. If she can’t do that, welcome President Trump.
5. This could actually help the Republican party in the long run, especially if Trump is defeated. Right now the GOP is stuck due to intense conservative opposition to compromise with the Democrats. The problem is that these conservatives represent a shrinking number of Americans who are in denial of the cultural and demographic change of the last thirty years. The Republicans need to craft a conservatism for the 21st Century. By showing the inability of either the establishment wing or the conservative wing of the party to put forth a viable alternative, the GOP will be forced to rethink it’s brand. If Trump wins, that will happen as well, as a Trump led GOP will be anathema to the so-called conservative movement. Either way, the Republican party is in transition.
6. While a Hillary victory will cement gains made by progressives during the Obama administration, the Sanders challenge shows that the public wants the Democrats to retool their message as well. Obama beat Hillary for the same reason Sanders is threatening her – she is the past, she represents the old Democratic message. If she wins, Democrats risk becoming lazy, not recognizing that their message isn’t resonating, especially with young voters who are more liberal than ever. A Hillary loss, on the other hand, will yield a new generation of Democratic leaders who will recognize that they need to expand their appeal – much like Obama did in 2008.
And therein is the oddity of this election as I see it: the losing party is likely to benefit more in the long run than the winning party. If Hillary wins, she needs to make sure Democrats do not become complacent and take seriously what the Obama and Sanders challenges symbolized.
I also sense that this election will introduce radical changes in American politics in the years to come, not reflecting the traditional interests of left or right, but concepts and attitudes fitting the culture of the new Century. In any event, we live in interesting times.