Monday, August 01, 2016

Will the Ghost of Trump Haunt 2020?

It's mildly repugnant, in my opinion to start a conversation about the next presidential election before the current one is even done.  Considering the blood sport that our presidential elections have become, even for political junkies like myself having pundits start the conversation about what will happen in four years is a dialogue that makes me want to throw things.  I remember the exact moment four years ago where I switched away from CNN was when they mentioned the names "Rand Paul" and "Chris Christie" and "2016" and I thought "can't we let Obama's voters actually, you know, get some of the things he promised on the campaign trail before we relegate him a lame duck?"  That's how I largely feel about 2020 right now, particularly since the polls have been volatile in the past couple of weeks so we don't know who will be the next president, and in particular what kind of Congress he or she will have to deal with once they enter the Oval Office.

But there's an element of the 2016 elections that is going to factor so heartily into 2020, in my opinion, that I can't help but want to discuss it, and that is the question of To Trump or Not to Trump for prominent GOP-ers.  The reality is, no matter what kind of a convention boost Hillary Clinton gets or the approval ratings of President Obama, if we do indeed elect a Democrat in 2016 it will in large part due to the Republicans nominating arguably the most horrific major party nominee in the history of the country.  Donald Trump's repugnant attacks this campaign on a gold star family, fire marshalls, POW's, candidates' spouses-the list goes on and on and on and I suspect will just get larger and larger-has made him deeply controversial, and someone that many usually outwardly impartial journalists will openly reject in hopes of shaping the narrative.  Republicans, though very few present officeholders it's worth noting, have abandoned him, many of them prominently and publicly.  But my question goes to-what are the long-term ramifications of these actions, and will it hurt them in future presidential elections?

The reality is that we have no way of knowing, because in part we have no way of knowing who will win in November.  Hillary Clinton, less than 100 days from Election Day, is definitely leading in the polls, but there are enough Republicans in the country and her campaign has had enough twists-and-turns that I wouldn't totally dispel the idea that the election gets a lot closer.  We have never, for example, seen a Bradley Effect really happen when it comes to gender, but we've also never seen a woman run for president on a major party's ticket-will that make a difference when voters are alone in a ballot box?  Either way, Trump definitely could win, but right now he's the underdog, and for the purposes of this article let's assume he comes out in November on the losing side of 270.

Trump's campaign could be relegated to being a long national nightmare, of course.  We could decide communally to never speak of it again, and the Republican Party goes back to its business.  After all, it'll be difficult for a Democrat in four years to really run against someone who has been a Trump supporter unless they are the most vociferous of ones (Chris Christie's career ended the day that Trump tried to back out of Mike Pence and couldn't) since he never actually was president, but not impossible, particularly if it's an issue in the primary.  The reason for that is that there are still several Republicans, mostly men who lost to him on the campaign trail, who have pointedly refused to endorse Donald Trump, while other potential candidates in 2020 have endorsed Trump tepidly.

The four men who clearly have the most to gain by there being a collective Trump backlash in 2020 are Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney, the former two being men that will surely run again in four years if Clinton wins this November and the latter two being men who probably, in their hearts, haven't quite decided against a race but will need to woo their families in a major way to get there.  It's likely that these men, if Trump loses and we are given a third consecutive term with a Democrat in the White House, will talk about how Republicans enabled Trump.  They'll surely stand on their soapbox and proclaim that they tried to stop this pox on the party, but the rest of the candidates gave in while they maintained a "conservative principle."  It'll be hard for people like Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and especially Paul Ryan to escape Trump because there are multiple interviews, sound bytes, and statements that show them still backing Trump after he has said some of the most heinous things I've ever seen come out of the mouth of a presidential candidate.

Paul Ryan, in particular, seems to have largely sacrificed his career on the Trump alter.  Ryan has been forced to admonish Trump, but all the while still support him as the nominee.  He has started to move from the brainy Speaker, a handsome man with a different vision of America and a compelling biography, to someone that has become a bit of a joke to most of the left and someone easily attacked on the campaign trail.  His insistence on making Trump wait for his endorsement, then giving it to him, and then not relinquishing it even after he attacked the families of dead soldiers, veterans, and female journalists is a series of campaign ads waiting to happen, and will largely question his judgment.  The big unknown here is whether or not Ryan can hold his majority if Trump implodes too greatly-a double-digit win for Clinton is very unlikely, but not impossible and if enough Republicans stay home his majority would be in jeopardy, and his presidential ambitions would be over should that become the case.  Either way, Trump has had a major impact on the once promising career of Ryan, perhaps even more so than the now deeply tarnished promise of someone like Marco Rubio.

The last question in this quandary, of course, is what happens to the Trump support in four years.  I've heard conversations about whether or not this is simply a cult of personality, something only one man could achieve in American politics, or whether or not he has started a movement that the Republican Party cannot quell.  It seems unlikely that, as George W. Bush said a few weeks ago, he will be the last Republican president, but one wonders what it will take for a person to win the primary election and the general.  If the Trump path works for the nomination, and a presidential candidate continues to buy into the idea that the primary is harder to win than the general (a maxim that I still think is true in our 50/50 country), then why not sell your soul for a shot at Gretchen (aka the Oval Office) if it's your life's pursuit?  It's hard to imagine someone in four years not trying the Trump path-if it works again, will that effectively end the Republican Party's chances until the Democrats make a similar sort of blunder?  These are all questions that haunt the 2020 race that we'll likely begin to answer in November when we choose the next president.

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