A wave election? Or a fundamental realigning of American politics?
More than two centuries ago, Alexander Hamilton said: “Every vital question of State will be merged in the question, ‘Who will be the next President?’” In the most important election of our lifetimes, Hamilton’s question is once again prescient, and all signs point to Joe Biden as today’s answer. The Democratic presidential nominee has a large national polling lead and is ahead in several swing states. Meanwhile, President Trump’s job approval rating stands at 45 percent, a sure-fire predictor of an incumbent’s popular vote. In addition, 60 percent of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track” — yet another reliable indicator of a change-minded electorate. And Biden has outraised Trump, whose campaign is short of cash in the final days. Impatient Americans, whose lives and fortunes have been upended by COVID-19, want change.
Whenever Americans change presidents, they often seek the opposite both in character and temperament. In 1992, voters chose Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush, wanting someone who wasn’t removed from their economic troubles and would “feel their pain.” Eight years later, Americans changed presidents again. Wanting a president who could set a moral example after the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, they chose George W. Bush. And eight years after that, Americans preferred a more cerebral, thoughtful leader and they found Barack Obama. And in 2016, Americans voted for change and found an outsider whose character and temperament were opposite of Obama’s in Donald J. Trump.
This year, Joe Biden has met the moment. Today, Americans don’t despise government; they want more of it. A health crisis, climate crisis, racial crisis and economic crisis all cry for action. The cri de coeur of this year’s voters is akin to that of the Great Depression in 1932, when voters literally shouted: “Do something!” In Biden, they have someone with decades of Washington experience who understands the moment and is ready to act.
Since 1992, Americans have chosen a president who was either from outside Washington, D.C., or had spent very little time living there. But having tried Trump, an outsider candidate has little allure to voters who see national emergencies all around them. Biden’s pragmatism appeals to a majority of Americans who eschew ideology for results. And Biden’s character, empathy and temperament stand directly opposite of Trump’s. Character matters, as it did for Jimmy Carter’s candidacy following Richard Nixon’s resignation. This time character, mixed with a desire for government action, is the 1976 election on steroids.
A wave election is about to happen. And when that wave washes ashore, it will lift Democrats of all stripes up and down the ballot. The Democratic House majority will expand; Democrats will take the Senate; and Democrats in state legislatures will strengthen their positions and assume control in key states — the latter being crucial in a decennial year when legislative districts will be redrawn in 2021.
But whether the election is either a wave or a fundamental reordering of American politics, remains to be seen. In 1994 and 2010, Republican waves washed out Democrats in Congress but did not produce a fundamental realignment. In each case, the president targeted by voters adapted. Bill Clinton eschewed unpopular policies by “triangulating” with the new Republican congressional majorities. Voters liked the arrangement and reelected Clinton in 1996. In 2010, voters disapproved of Democrats ramming health care through Congress, and they gave Obama a “shellacking.” Obama got the message, and in 2012 voters kept both Obama and the Republicans in power, each serving as a check on the other. In 2018, a third wave election washed out the Republican majority in the House. But this time Donald Trump did not change course, and the undercurrents that swept Democrats into office have grown only stronger.
This year’s wave election will be the byproduct of an unhappy, exhausted and sick country. Voters are tired of the Trump Show and want to change the channel. Ever the showman, Donald Trump’s greatest fear has always been losing the audience. And it has happened, as Trump’s plaintive plea, “Suburban women, will you please like me?” demonstrates.
Trump’s last-ditch assertion that only he can save the country from socialism has little appeal for two reasons: Joe Biden and the pandemic. Biden’s retort, “Do I look like a socialist to you?” answers itself. And given the pandemic and the crises spawned by it, voters want results. If the post-2020 Democratic majorities go “too far” by enacting “Medicare for All,” transitioning too quickly from oil to cleaner sources of energy, acting on immigration reform without additional border protections, raising taxes on the middle class and “defunding the police,” this year’s wave will quickly dissipate.
But it is far more likely that a Biden presidency will yield more moderation than many expect. While progressive Democrats have won congressional seats in liberal constituencies, they have not done so in competitive districts. This year’s infusion of Democrats will happen thanks to suburban, college educated women who are repulsed by Trump. And they will form a strong, moderate coalition in the House and Senate. All talk of intraparty Democratic divisions is likely to be just that, talk. Big party coalitions always have internal divisions. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition contained both southern whites and African Americans. Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party had evangelicals and moderate suburbanites. All disagreed on important issues. But the intraparty peace each party formed lasted decades.
Perhaps the most important question that will determine our collective political futures is what the Republican Party will do after 2020. Certainly, if Democrats had nominated either Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and had won, the GOP would have immediately coalesced into a virulent opposition. A decisive Biden win should make Republicans contemplate their party’s future. But such reflection can take time. After thrice losing the presidency in the 1980s, Democrats finally came to believe they no longer had a candidate problem but a party problem. And they abandoned their old New Deal thinking to become “New Democrats” who thought more government wasn’t always the answer.
Serious rethinking may occur within the GOP, and that would be good for our politics. A vibrant, two-party system invigorates our democracy. But Donald Trump’s hostile takeover showed the weakness of the Republican establishment. And no matter the outcome on November 3, Trump isn’t going away. It is likely both he and his party will be decisively defeated. But the smaller a party becomes, the more homogenous it is.
Therefore, it is entirely possible that Republicans will double-down on Trump and Trumpism. And there are strong signs this will occur. On the eve of the election, 54 percent of Republicans say they are supporters of Donald Trump first, while only 38 percent say they support the Republican Party first. If the GOP remains the Trump Party, it will surely face more devastating election nights. And our politics will suffer.
Hamilton’s truism remains: Every important question of national importance boils down to this: Who will be the next president? Answer to come.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
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