On November 4, the United States will elect a new president. And, on November 5, in this era of the permanent campaign, the Road to the White House 2012 will begin in earnest.
Depending on what happens on Election Day, of course, there are two distinctly different narratives that are likely to unfold. If Barack Obama somehow stumbles, it’s fairly clear that Hillary Clinton will step in to pick up the pieces and resume her status as the Democratic front-runner and leader in opposition.
If, however, Obama ends up winning — perhaps decisively — the way forward for the Republicans is much less clear. And, frankly, if you’re a GOP voter, it’s looking gloomy.
The Pachyderm Party will face a situation where the only voices they’ll be hearing in the proverbial wilderness are from talk radio. They’ll have a scattered minority in Congress, and no discernible national or intellectual leaders pointing the way to a new future. Most of the “heavyweights” from the 2008 campaign face a cloudy future. Mitt Romney still hasn’t proved he can appeal to the masses; Mike Huckabee will find it hard to become a national figure hosting a lackluster weekend TV show for Fox News. And as for Sarah Palin, four more years of gubernatorial experience will help, but it will be significantly harder for this hockey mom to survive a grueling primary campaign (when her opponents will have plenty of time to do their opposition research on her) than it is to make it through a protected, honeymoon-ish eight-week general-election campaign. Really.
But the GOP might well face two historical problems that are even more formidable. The first is that parties decisively thrown out of power usually spend the next campaign turning to their fringe, on the theory that “if we had only stuck to our principles, instead of compromising, we would have won.” Already we can see numerous Republicans mouthing that mantra. If followed to its conclusion, the result in 2012 will be the same as it was in 1936 when the Republicans nominated Alf Landon after the FDR landslide in 1932, and in 1972 when the Democrats nominated George McGovern after the GOP won the White House in 1968.
They’ll lose in a landslide even worse than in 2008.
But beyond that, the Republicans could face an even greater challenge. In times of economic turmoil, American history teaches us that voters usually seek out a populist alternative. The greatest political threat to FDR in the early ’30s came not from the Republicans but from his own party’s Huey Long, with his “share the wealth” economics. Likewise, the downturns of the 1890s produced populist William Jennings Bryan, whom the Democrats actually nominated as their candidate three times (he lost each time).
Outside of figure-from-the-past Pat Buchanan — who could always mount a comeback — the Republicans have no one credible to speak to working-class voters. Their efforts at populism over the past 40 years have focused almost entirely on social issues, not economic ones. Besides, Newt Gingrich’s efforts notwithstanding, the GOP’s fingerprints are not only all over the current economic swoon, their president, their 2008 candidate, and a large number of their members voted for the Wall Street bailout.
An Obama presidency would undoubtedly try to co-opt the populist economic argument, in much the same way FDR did in the early ’30s. But it’s not at all clear he will be successful. (To be fair, had Long not been removed from the scene in 1935, it’s unclear how successful FDR’s political future would have been, either.) Sure, an eventual recovery will go a long way to solving President Obama’s problem with working-class voters, but his hands will be tied politically, to some extent, since most of the Democratic Party has been in bed with the investment bankers and the deregulators just as much as have the Republicans. Isn’t Bob Rubin just Hank Paulsen in a different suit?
This suggests that if Obama wins, the real political energy in the country over the next several years may come from a new populist political force. Would someone challenge Obama from the left? Unlikely. But already there are arguments from such political theorists as Michael Barone and Steve Sailer that the cheap mortgages, which led to the housing crisis, which precipitated the financial crisis, were directly related to the immigration boom. Such arguments are made-to-order for someone like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who has recently been railing against the lackluster efforts to solve the financial crisis with gusto, much as he attacks the government’s failures to enforce immigration laws.
In other words, Dobbs — or a counterpart — is likely to be a “third party” political force to watch after November 4. That’s not politics as usual. But neither is the era we’re now facing.
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.