It’s never too early to speculate about upcoming presidential elections, right? Heck, on the Internet there’s a whole cottage industry of writers getting paid to do just that, so I figured I’d try my hand at it (pro bono, of course). However, for all of the articles floating around, there is surprisingly little variation on the narrative. On the Democratic side, the consensus is that Hillary Clinton has the nomination in the bag if she wants it. What’s more, the vast majority of Democrats are fine with that, discounting a small contingent of committed progressives who will grumble about how she isn’t really that liberal to anyone who will listen. On the Republican side, everyone’s certain that it will be the final battle for the soul of the Grand Old Party – the “Establishment” (whatever that means) versus the Tea Party (again, whatever that means).
When it comes to the general election, though, I think there are a couple of ways things could actually get interesting. Granted, what I’m about to describe are far from the most likely outcomes, I think they merit discussion. With that in mind, I would like to present two possibilities for 2016…
Option #1 – The (Partial) Realignment: The odds are Clinton is going to run, and the odds are that if she does, she’ll win the nomination fairly easily. However, she will face some sort of opposition in the primaries, and the easiest way for a Democratic candidate to distinguish themself from Clinton would be to tack to her left. There is no shortage of potential liberal anti-Clintons, from Martin O’Malley to Elizabeth Warren to even Bernie Sanders, the independent, socialist Senator from Vermont who has strongly hinted he may run in the Democratic primaries or launch an independent presidential bid in 2016. And there are no shortage of issues for one of them to exploit in attacking Clinton, primarily in the areas of civil liberties and foreign policy. While she has been adamant that she regrets supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie notes that Clinton still strongly supported intervening in Libya and Syria, despite opposition from an overwhelming majority of Democrats. He concludes that one “can say a few things about Clinton, and if you’re an intervention skeptic, none of them is good.”1 Presuming the economy continues to slowly improve and the situation in the Middle East continues to rapidly deteriorate, both strong possibilities, then these issues will be a huge part of the 2016 election cycle, and Clinton will be left with serious discontent in the Democratic base.
Which is probably what Rand Paul is counting on.
While he has toned down some of his father’s more extreme rhetoric, Senator Paul has made no secret of the fact that he is extremely skeptical of overseas interventions, having recently engaged in a feud of sorts with former Vice President Dick Cheney over potential American involvement in the current Iraqi crisis. Furthermore, Paul has advocated a number of policies to attempt to soften the Republican brand, from lessening sentences for drug offenders to re-enfranchising felons. While he will undoubtedly face some stiff opposition for this should he choose to run in the Republican primaries, polling and other factors suggest that Paul is one of the front runners at the moment. Precedent dictates that Clinton will be too busy trying to win over the center of the electorate in the general election to worry about disaffected liberals, but Paul just may try the unorthodox strategy of actively courting them. Before you dismiss this as unrealistic, note that this would be the culmination of an informal alliance that progressives, libertarians, and conservatives have built in Congress to tackle a variety of issues. Liberals and Tea Partiers teamed up to protest Obama’s various proposed foreign interventions, and in both the Senate vote on the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act and the House vote for the Amash-Conyers Amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the most liberal and conservative members of both chambers tended to vote against what they viewed as government encroachment on civil liberties. Should Clinton not appease the more civilly libertarian and noninterventionist members of her base, more than few might been inclined to protest vote for Paul. Likewise, Paul’s positions on these issues might cause the many Republicans who believe in strong national defense to think twice before voting for him.
Of course, there would be obstacles make it difficult to see huge amounts of Democrats and Republicans voting against their own party in 2016. Despite agreeing on a few issues, progressives have irrevocable differences with Paul and other conservatives on a whole host of social and economic issues. Meanwhile, too many Republicans just don’t like Hillary Clinton for anything approaching a significant number of them to vote for her over Paul. If they don’t like the GOP nominee, it’s far more likely many of them just wouldn’t vote for anybody. But if Clinton wins the moderate vote by a substantial margin and Paul is able to win over a statistically noticeable number of liberals from the Democrats, the media narrative will be that the 2016 election featured the most liberal and conservative Americans revolting from the centrists in the political establishment. It’d be interesting to see how things in Washington progress from there, regardless of who wins.
Option #2 – The Perot Factor: Everyone knows that the United States has been growing increasingly politically polarized in recent election cycles. The perception is that conservatives dominate the Republican Party and liberals dominate the Democratic Party, which in turn has led to an unprecedentedly large number of Americans identifying as political independents. So what happens if Hillary Clinton actually loses the nomination to someone to her left? Say, Elizabeth Warren, who seems to be incredibly popular among progressives right now? Yes, Clinton has a seemingly insurmountable polling lead over any potential primary challengers right now, and yes, Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly denied any interest in running for president. But a lot of things can change between now and primary season. At this point in the lead-up to 2008 Obama was still denying any presidential ambitions in the then-near future. As aforementioned, a Warren campaign would be music to progressive ears, and that would become the narrative: that she’s the most liberal Democratic nominee since George McGovern. Conservative rhetoric aside, there was no smoking gun in 2008 to portray Obama as some sort of progressive ideologue, but that would be far from the case with Warren.
Furthermore, what if Rand Paul or, better yet for this scenario, Ted Cruz wins the Republican nomination? Both have been polling fairly well, so it’s at least an outside possibility. Any potential crossover appeal Paul might have among progressives would be neutralized by a Warren candidacy, and Cruz wouldn’t even try to make the effort. In such a scenario, both the Democratic and Republican nominee would be perceived by many politically-independent Americans – now the majority of the electorate – as too radical. Many voters would be left fundamentally alienated from the political process.
In such a scenario, I could see an opening for an independent, moderate candidate, someone like Michael Bloomberg or Evan Bayh or Jon Huntsman. While I doubt they would win, they would probably perform better than any independent candidate since Ross Perot in 1992. And a candidate that has a lock on independents would force both the Republican and Democratic candidate to pander solely to their base in the general election in hopes of winning the turnout game. This would in turn exacerbate the polarization in the American political process, which would arguably be equally interesting to the first scenario.
As for me? Leslie Knope/Ron Swanson 2016.
Addendum: For anyone who wants to know in more detail what the rhetoric of a potential Rand Paul campaign could look like if he’s trying to appeal to progressives, Ralph Nader has written a new book on issues where liberals and conservatives could align going forward. It’s called “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State”.