Handicapping the race over at The Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last quotes Stuart Stevens: “For Donald Trump to win, everything we know about politics has to be wrong.”
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.