The two major American political parties have survived almost two centuries, not because of enduring platforms, policies and values, but because everything about them, except the names, has changed with the times.
Not always for the better. Enter 2016.
California Republicans are getting up-close looks at 2016 candidate models this weekend when Ted Cruz, John Kasich and what’s his name, the rich New York guy, blow into Burlingame for the state party convention.
So, what is really at stake in Cleveland come July? Only the future of the party of Abraham Lincoln and the balance of American democracy that depends on a vibrant two-party system.
We’re going through a chaotic political cleansing now with an uncertain outcome Nov. 8 and beyond.
Democracy, as Winston Churchill put it, is the worst form of government except for all the others. Perhaps you’ve noticed the crony mess in Washington, the back-scratching to mutual benefit of people and institutions who are supposed to check and balance each other to protect those of us paying taxes.
Andrew Johnson, who fell into the presidency and terminal unpopularity, described Washington in the 19th century as 12 square miles surrounded by reality.
Take a peek this weekend at C-SPAN’s live coverage or archived video of the White House Correspondents Dinner. Gowned and tuxedoed watchdogs of the Fourth Estate chummily schmoozing and dining with establishment pols. Even red-carpet coverage of celebs.
No wonder Donald Trump has become such a national focus of protest and housecleaning hope against the status quo. He’ll shake up that place. Except, wait! He’ll be there too; always is. You’re being played, Trumpsters. Just as Obamabots were played in ’08 and ’12. And you all love it.
Think Rome 100 years into its 200-year decline, the tea party, then Trump railing against D.C. business as usual. But here’s a news flash: When despite all the discontent and low approval, 90 percent of senators and 80 percent of House members get re-elected, the message is clear.
Voters sound unhappy. And angry. But that passes.
The Democratic and Republican parties are, in effect, shifting collections of feuding factions and interests that coalesce primarily each leap year around a presidential candidate and campaign that reflect the dominant internal powers at that time and their self-serving reading of voters’ apparent political desires.
The ideological power center of these parties can shift quite quickly. Centrist Bill Clinton, for instance, wouldn’t have a Baptist prayer of being the Comeback Kid and Democrats’ nominee this time as in 1992, so far to the left has his party shifted.
Some speculate intriguingly that even conservative icon Ronald Reagan, whose skills recalibrated American and global politics between 1981-89, would have trouble winning the GOP nod nowadays, so far to the right has that party’s base moved. Until it began sniffing Trump’s media meth.
You want genuine outsiders? The initial 17 Republican candidates included several accomplished governors, each with long records of conservative accomplishments, even guerrilla war with Washington.
But no. Americans want a wealthy, reality-TV celebrity who lives on Fifth Avenue. Seriously? A lifelong pal of and donor to Democrats and their causes. Here’s a thought: If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. Ring any bells about buying presidential promises?
Somehow governing inexperience is a Trump plus, which might be OK for, say, the House of Representatives. But commander in chief? With nuclear weapons. The world’s most powerful military, albeit decaying.
Cruz is hard to like. But he’s brilliant with a growing record of fighting The Man.
Kasich is a popular governor. But he was House Budget chair, about as inside as you get. And he has fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, who quit months ago.
But don’t get tied up in arcane state delegate selection rules and the media’s chronic – and lazy – horse-race mentality for the 24-hour news cycle.
Party conventions have become a four-night TV miniseries. Once, they were real consensus-building political gatherings. Lincoln won a contested convention, coming into the new party’s 1860 national assembly trailing badly.
Later Republicans have had disastrous experiences after contested national conventions. Reagan challenged incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976. Ford lost. New York’s tiny Tom Dewey came out on top at the 1944 convention. He lost. Again in 1948. Same in 1940 for Wendell Willkie, a political rookie and wealthy businessman who arrived from nowhere as a fresh non-politician. He lost.
The classic Republican self-destruction was 1912. Former President Teddy Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft, his hand-picked successor. Denied the nomination, T.R. launched the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, which finished second.
But that fatally split the GOP vote, handing the White House to liberal Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who got his beloved income tax passed, thanks to deep GOP divisions.
Today’s divided and angry Republican Party, like the fractious Whig Party it replaced 160 years ago, confronts its own dissolution. It can perhaps nominate Trump if he gets a 1,237-delegate majority and, according to current polls, meet Electoral College annihilation from Hillary Clinton.
Adding to GOP disintegration: deep anticipated down-ticket losses in House and Senate races, as disaffected conservatives stay home.
Or the party can deny the nomination to the real estate magnate and media magnet, his supporters stay home and, according to similar current polls, also lose to Clinton with hard-line conservative Cruz. Think 1964 when hardliners drove Sen. Barry Goldwater down the divided party’s throat because it was finally time for a real conservative. Goldwater was destroyed in the Electoral College, 486-52.
Both parties have survived third-party challenges and severe presidential thrashings, from divided conventions or voter disfavor. In 1984, Reagan took 525 electoral votes to Walter Mondale’s 13, the worst loss ever. Democrats didn’t win again until 1992, in large part due to Ross Perot’s third-party bid.
Eminent political journalist Michael Barone makes a persuasive case the Republican Party will survive Trump Trauma.
This, he says, is because Trump’s base springs from less-educated, angry voters who’ve suffered most from recent economic dislocations but do not typically participate in civic activities. No Trump: no lasting Trump movement.
I fear otherwise. Much of the divisive anger among conservatives stems from dissatisfaction with congressional Republicans, whose appeal for money and votes was answered by voters in 2010, 2012 and 2014. To no visible results.
Speaker Paul Ryan seems to agree. Like a military strategist with backup plans, he’s designing an ambitious conservative GOP legislative agenda to build around a recovering party for 2017 and beyond. Good luck. The debris will be deep.
Of course, to pull that off he needs to maintain his large Republican House majority. At one point not so long ago, that seemed a given. Not anymore.
Andrew Malcolm is a veteran foreign and national correspondent who began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. He’s written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Investor’s Business Daily and authored 10 books. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.