It is still very early, and there will be twists and turns aplenty, but the election results so far have convinced me of one thing: Whoever wins the 2016 presidential election, we are going to see sweeping change in this country over the next several years — a change that I would call a Big Change Moment.
I came out with a book in 2009 called The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be that argued that there have been a few periods in American history where an enormous amount of very big changes happened in a very short time. On the good side: the 1860s, the early years of the 1900s, the 1930s, and 1960s. In each of those periods, you had not just one or two transformative policy changes, but a whole series of them, and our nation came out of those moments a radically changed country for the better. On the downside, you had us turning back from the gains of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, the Social Darwinism of the 1880s and 1890s, the 1920s economic policies that led directly to the Great Depression, and the economic decline for the middle class we have seen in this country since the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. History goes backwards as well as forwards. But in each of those cases, for good or for ill, the big changes happened when there was deep political turmoil and a radical mood in the country- and that is exactly what we are facing today.
Because of that radicalized mood of the American electorate, the anti-establishment candidates, the candidates widely dismissed and disdained by the pundit class, are winning big so far. And I believe that even if one of the candidates that the establishment finds more acceptable ends up winning the presidency, the mood of the voters and the level of passion are such that whoever wins will be forced to make big changes before his or her term is over.
Let’s look at who might be in the White House next year.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump is now the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. Jeb Bush was pumped enough about his 6th place showing in Iowa and 4th place in NH to keep going; Rubio-bot had a technical glitch on debate night and finished 5th, but will keep going, at least until his batteries wear down; Kasich surprised everyone by finishing a clear (if weak) 2nd, and he will be able to keep going for at least a little while, although his appeal in the upcoming states on the calendar is questionable at best.
But none of these candidates have much life to their campaigns or seem to be going anywhere, and they all muddle up the race for each other. With the race heading mostly south in the weeks to come and with some money in the bank, one can still imagine Cruz competing with Trump at least in some places. However, the sense one gets from Trump’s dominating performance across pretty much all demographic groups in New Hampshire is that it will be very hard to dislodge him from the top spot at this point, especially with three establishment-lane candidates dividing up that part of the party’s votes. I would give Trump an 80% plus chance of winning the nomination right now, with Cruz getting most of the other 20%.
Think Trump won’t be a Big Change Moment kind of president? Or Cruz? I think both Trump and Cruz would be spectacular failures on so many levels, but even as a spectacular failure, they would radically damage this country, as extremism, open racism, nativism, and the physical intimidation of their enemies will move from the fringe to the norm.
One other Republican(ish) candidate may be running this year as well, except as an independent: Michael Bloomberg. If Trump and Sanders look like they will be the general election candidates by the time Bloomberg has to decide to run as an independent sometime in mid-March, I think he is almost certain to run. Bloomberg could win such a race, as there will be a fair number of people, especially the older, higher income folks who vote in the heaviest numbers, who would be scared to death of both Trump and Sanders. Meanwhile, the media would be swooning over the ‘non-partisan’ billionaire who sounds so middle-of-the-road. Such a victory is by no means a done deal, though, and I believe in the end that Sanders wins a 3 way race with 2 billionaires. But even if Bloomberg wins the general election, the populist anger unleashed in this race, the radical revolt against the establishment and elites from both parties, will force Bloomberg to start to make big changes. And if he moves too slowly, he will lose a second term, and we will see someone in the White House more ready to make big changes (from either direction).
On the Democratic side, I believe the race is now close to a toss-up. Hillary still has a big edge in money and institutional support, and that may carry her over the finish line in the end, but what Iowa and New Hampshire showed us is that the money and institutional edge aren’t enough in a presidential race as contentious as this one. Again, though, even if Hillary wins, she will face a heavily populist and anti-establishment movement in her own party, as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive leaders will have more strength to drive her toward bigger, bolder, more populist policies. And the Hillary I got to know in my years inside of the Clinton team would welcome that push from the outside.
If on the other hand, Bernie wins the nomination and then the presidency, he will clearly make an all-out push for big change, and the big question will be if the movement he helped build in his campaign can help him make it happen. And while the Big Money opponents will do everything in their considerable power to stop him, I suspect that the utter shock to the body politic that would happen if a democratic socialist were actually elected president might well upend the Washington status quo.
The bottom line is this: both parties’ voters, and independent voters even more, are at the gates with pitchforks. When the financial collapse of 2008 caused housing prices to plummet and unemployment to skyrocket, and the Wall Street bankers that made all that happen did not go to jail, lose their jobs, or even lose their bonuses the next year, ordinary Americans reached a breaking point. Big numbers of voters are convinced that the system is corrupt and broken, and that both parties are on the take.
What we are seeing now is open revolt, a revolt that will change everything in the coming years. We will have a Big Change Moment in this country, one as big and deep as anything since the 1960s shook up our entire society. It may be good or it may be bad, but it will be big. I just hope it’s for the better.
As a side note - and for the record, I am neutral — but I need to make a comment about the Democratic race. I so appreciated Bernie’s comments about the need for unity after the primary fight is over. I hope that both his troops and Hillary’s take those words to heart. The threat of Trump or Cruz winning this election is very real without a unified Democratic Party, and with a fired up GOP. Whatever happens in this primary, I hope we can come together.
Due to this necessity for party unity and motivation, the only path to a November victory for Democrats is for both candidates to focus on their own selling points, not disparaging each other. This is especially important for Hillary because people already have a negative image of her as a traditional politician. If she keeps attacking Bernie as too ambitious and too unrealistic, she makes herself look small. What Hillary must do is convince people that she really is willing to shake things up on Wall Street and in Washington.
I know that running a strongly positive campaign goes against the Clinton campaign’s mindset. I was there in the 1992 war room when our fast moving, aggressive, pull no punches campaign created the mindset the Clintons have had ever since. We were snarky and funny; we trolled George HW Bush with people in chicken suits when he wouldn’t debate and people dressed as cigarettes when he took big money from tobacco companies. We had a great time and we won big, and the Clintons and other Democrats have used that model for campaigns ever since.
But this primary race is a different kind of election. Voters are looking for big ideas and genuine passion, not snark. They need to be convinced that Hillary really will stand up to the powers that be, not try to win by the usual cutting attacks.
If Hillary can show voters the big idea, shake up the system side of her, she wins this race. If she stays in the current frame as the incrementalist opposed to big change, she loses this race. It’s that simple.
This country’s voters are demanding a big change moment, in their elections as well as their government. It’s time for the Democrats to deliver.