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America’s Biggest Problem? Political Armageddon Is Almost Here

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, U.S. April 23, 2022. REUTERS/Gaelen Morse/File Photo/File Photo
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, U.S. April 23, 2022. REUTERS/Gaelen Morse/File Photo/File Photo

Today every election ends up being called the most important ever. As will be 2024. Although much will be at stake, many other votes have been noteworthy and unpredictable as well.

Republicans gained the House last November, but no one expects spineless Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who sold his authority for a mess of pottage, to achieve much. The GOP’s control rests upon several broken reeds, starting with New York’s mini-red wave. The victory margins were narrow and that tide might recede next time: it certainly is difficult to imagine fabulist George Santos winning reelection, and another GOP candidate might find holding the Democratic-leaning district to be an equally daunting task. There is MAGA-compromised Lauren Boebert, a so-called “conservative firebrand” thought to be safe but who turned off even some of her base and barely survived. And other close-run victors.

The Democrats are even more vulnerable in the Senate. They hold only 51 seats and face a reversal of the Republicans’ predicament in 2020. With the latter’s small majority in play, Georgia unusually hosted two Senate races. The GOP lost both, along with control of the body.

Now the Democrats’ exercise only tenuous control, which is similarly at risk. Pennsylvania’s newly elected John Fetterman, who suffered a debilitating stroke last year during the campaign, has been hospitalized for depression. Pennsylvania’s other Senator, Bob Casey, recently underwent surgery for prostate cancer. He declared the operation a success, but his reelection campaign now could be in doubt. That raises the possibility of two open Democratic seats up for grabs, and an opportunity for the GOP to exact political payback.

Finally, there’s the presidential race. President Joe Biden says he is running, and broad Democratic disquiet over his age is unlikely to dissuade him. His negatives are high, his legislative accomplishments are discounted, and his foreign forays win few votes. Without the COVID pandemic, he won’t be able to hide his intermittent incapacity from the public. Although most Democrats still bet that he can beat Donald Trump, recent polls call that assumption into question. And any other Republican looks to have an electoral edge.

Assume for the moment that Biden—or perhaps the Bidens—decided that he should call it quits. Nothing suggests such a decision, but they could conclude that a campaign would prove embarrassing personal foibles now merely imagined. If so, who would the Democratic Party turn to?

Fair or not, Vice President Kamala Harris, whose 2020 presidential campaign imploded badly, has been judged wanting. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg once looked like a bright light, but his performance in Washington has not impressed. Other 2020 retreads look no better. Perhaps a governor? The oft-mentioned Gavin Newsom presides over California’s wokish kingdom, toxic for most of the country. Some other state executives look better, such as Kentucky’s Andy Beshear and Colorado’s Jared Polis, but few have gained much national attention.

As for the GOP, former president Donald Trump was badly damaged by the disastrous, dishonest conclusion of his presidency and his party’s disappointing performance in last November’s poll. Moreover, his conduct since leaving the White House suggests a descent into political madness, no longer constrained by “adults in the room.” National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke analyzed Trump’s recent course: “There was a point in time at which Trump’s unusual verbal affect and singular nose for underutilized wedge issues gave him a competitive edge. Now? Now, he’s morphing into one of the three witches from Macbeth. To peruse Trump’s account on Truth Social is to meet a cast of characters about whom nobody who lives beyond the Trump Extended Universe could possibly care one whit.”

For this and manifold other reasons, any if not most Republican professionals, along with a significant band of ideological and temperamental moderates, want an alternative. However, a plethora of alternative candidates could allow Trump to grab the nomination with a series of plurality primary wins.

Although Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks strong, he is untested nationally, and in the past similar early favorites have faded after the race begins. If so, who would step in? Sen. Josh Hawley is ambitious and advocates transforming the GOP into something much uglier, but his appeal has yet to move from activists to the public. Republican Party apparatchiks might know both former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, but foreign policy credentials rarely elect a president, especially in these unsettled economic times. There are few obvious alternatives—Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio flamed out in 2016, moderate former governors such as Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan won’t carry the MAGA base, newbie Sen. J.D. Vance underperformed last November. Finally, unconventional longshots such as Sen. Tim Scott remain, well, longshots.

Indeed, both parties are rolling toward extremes. In Michigan, where MAGA-led Republicans suffered a well-deserved wipe-out last November, the more radical election-denier defeated the Trump-endorsed election-denier for GOP party chairman. Arizona election-denier Kari Lake has bizarrely boosted her future Republic Party prospects by staging a loony political tour claiming to be her state’s governor. The not-so-grand GOP is at war with itself, having increasingly denounced the market friendly, fiscally conservative policies popularized by President Ronald Reagan, who could not win the nomination today.

As for the Democrats, Biden’s ancient reputation for moderation is precisely that, ancient. In 2020 he made a deal with the activist left, surrendering appointments and policy to the activist extremes. For instance, on the identity politics has become a qualification for holding federal office.

More substantive is the explosion in spending. A new Congressional Budget Office report is out and offers a dire forecast. Over the last year alone estimates of this year’s deficit jumped by $426 billion. By 2033 the agency figures that the red ink will more than double, from $1.38 trillion to $2.95 trillion, and federal debt held by the public will nearly double, going from $24.28 trillion to $46.45 trillion. Interest alone will run an estimated $1.43 trillion, more than both Pentagon and Medicaid outlays. This path is fiscally unsustainable.

Anyone who trends toward moderation—Democrats who favor markets and oppose the culture war, Republicans who back fiscal probity and social tolerance—has no home. These disaffected aren’t enough to elect their own candidate, but they can deny victory to the others, blocking the worst MAGAesque demoniacs as well as thwarting leftwing militants and Democratic apparatchiks.

Amid the parties’ ideological pirouettes, the American people will be choosing a future based more on image, tone, and perception than policy, virtue, and reality. And no one looks good. Both parties are refusing to address runaway spending, retreating economically from the world, and treating nations ranging from China to Iran as enemies, while acting like the US still dominates the world as it did in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The result is a recrudescence of the welfare-warfare state. The consequences are likely to be ugly and long-lasting.

The best hope may be that an election loss in some form, whether withdrawal or defeat, in the primary or general election, for Trump might calm partisan waters and encourage some movement toward sanity. However, political antagonisms burgeoned before him and won’t disappear along with him. Moreover, transformation of both major parties reflects grassroots as well as elite opinion. And while it is common to hope that a crisis would bring people together, fiscal and financial catastrophe could accentuate differences and encourage Americans to look for scapegoats.

Perhaps the main glimmer of hope is that despite all the Sturm und Drang, 2024 is unlikely to be a pivotal political year. Next year’s presidential and congressional elections certainly will be important, but by no measure are they the most crucial ever. After all, races in 1800 and 1828, involving two different John Adams, dramatically reset the country’s political direction. The poll results in 1860 led to America’s breakup and in 1864 determined the outcome of a terrible civil war. The fractured race of 1912 interrupted a long period of Republican dominance. In 1932 the electoral result enabled a dramatic transformation the role of government in the US. The 1940 election determined who would manage America’s participation in the greatest war in human history. The 1964 outcome led to another dramatic expansion of federal power. In 1980 control of Congress as well as the presidency again became competitive, after a quarter century of firm one-party rule. The 2000 race set the stage for two decades of increasingly divisive and disputed foreign conflict.

In contrast, Donald Trump, despite the hysteria generated by his persona and misbehavior, started no new wars and created no new grand programs. Joe Biden, despite his intermittent incapacity, pushed the federal juggernaut leftward, but not as dramatically as Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. And none of the current presidential wannabes or possibilities look like transformational figures, though one of them could, of course, prove to be a surprise.

Looking back, America’s formation and survival in a dangerous, antagonistic world appears providential. In today’s increasingly fractious world and domestic political environment, the US could use some of that same divine favor today. The journey ahead is uncharted and likely to be unpredictable. Americans should fasten their political seatbelts.

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Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington, The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology, and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.