Say what you will about the Romney 2012 campaign, but Stuart Stevens is bright, perceptive, and candid—always worth listening to. So I was struck by his observation about Donald Trump during the course of an interview with New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman: “For Donald Trump to win, everything we know about politics has to be wrong.”
This strikes me as exactly true. In order for Trump—or Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina—to win the GOP nomination, everything we know about American politics would have to be wrong. Think about it: In order for the same electorate which nominated Mitt Romney four years ago to switch to Donald Trump, the voters would have to undergo some sort of paradigm shift in preferences.
What’s more, our parties hardly ever nominate non-professional politicians. There’s an American tradition of having generals in the White House—which stretches back to Washington—but the last general to be nominated by a party was Eisenhower in 1952. Since then, only one general has run (Wesley Clark in 2004).
Non-military, non-political professionals first started running regularly in the early twentieth century, and they’ve had a dismal record. Only one captured a party’s nomination. (That was Wendell Willkie in 1940, as the Republican nominee. And Willkie was as hip-deep into politics as you can be while still retaining civilian status.) Every other outsider: Channing Phillips, Ellen McCormack, Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Al Sharpton, Alan Keyes, Herman Cain—no dice.
So if Trump, Fiorina, or Carson win the nomination it will mean that something fundamental about the political order has changed. It would mean that this time it’s different.
In general, “this time it’s different” is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. But what if this time really is different? There’s certainly an argument to be made that it might be.
Barack Obama has become the transformational president he aspired to be. Among the things he has transformed is the nature of the political compact between the rulers and the ruled in our republic.
Before Obama, citizens hoped that their elected leaders would be wise, independent, and disinterested leaders—but they never really counted on utopian vision. What they banked on was that the people they elected would, at the very least, be self-interested vote-seekers—so that if voters started punishing politicians for a specific course of action, the politicians would abandon it.
The passage of Obamacare broke this arrangement. And the impending passage of the Iran nuclear deal, in the face of voter discontent will cement this new relationship as the norm. In both cases, Democratic law makers went along in processes that were highly irregular (the nuclear option for passage of Obamacare; no treaty ratification with Iran); with initiatives they largely disliked on the merits; that voters demonstrably disliked in polling; and that had (or are likely to have) negative outcomes not just in the real world, but in the political world, too. This sort of power dynamic is new in American politics.
Other things are new, too. Such as having the understanding of marriage dating back thousands of years redefined by a single unelected justice. Or having the rule of law downgraded to the level of executive discretion (on Obamacare, on marijuana, on immigration, etc). Or having an economic recovery that, seven years in, still feels like a recession. Or having a stretch of four presidential terms in which you could plausibly argue that at the end of the term the country has been in worse condition than it was at the beginning.
So maybe this time is different and maybe everything we know about politics is, if not wrong, exactly, then is changing.
But maybe not. As altered as the political order looks today from what it had been, there are two other recent moments at which the world changed in fundamental ways, too. In 1989, with the end of the Cold War, and in 2001, with 9/11 and the war against Islamic terrorism. If “everything we knew about politics” was ever going to be wrong, it should have been in the 1992 or 2004 elections.
But in the end, both of those races turned out to be reasonably conventional.