American political history can be, to the discerning admirer, an outstanding symbol of institutional order—even, one might hazard to say, beautiful for its smoothness in transition. The turmoil of the Civil War era aside, it is often cited as the oldest functioning democracy in the world (though we prefer the distinction of it being a republic). Indeed, it is hard for those of us living today to relate to that moment of tension in the election of 1800, as Washington stepped down and Adams and Jefferson vied for the presidency, when America held its breath in fear that the new country could not survive a change of power between two major parties without a violent uprising.
Despite this remarkable fluidity, there have nonetheless been times when new parties emerged to rattle the existing order (as with the Jacksonian Democrats in the 1820s and 30s or the anti-slavery Republican Party during the lead-up to the Civil War). There have likewise been factions within parties that have made their marks without attempting to redraw party lines (as with the Bourbon Democrats in the late 19th century and the Tea Party today). With the emergence of each of these groups, America witnessed the frenzied spectacle of a new (or sometimes distinctly classical) set of ideas brought forward by Americans displeased with the existing order and the major parties that struggled to contend with them.
There is a trend in US political history, however, that partly explains the histories of these factions, but which has been present elsewhere in our history in subtler ways. One finds, on closer inspection, that anytime one party prevails in presidential politics for a particularly prolonged period—such as Reagan’s election to two terms followed by Bush Sr.’s win in 1988—that the other party is forced to check its premises if it wishes to recover. Generally any span of more than two presidential terms held by the same party leads the other back to the drawing board.
In that light, let’s look at Republicans’ options for 2016: win or lose with an Establishment Republican candidate (more likely lose, based on recent experience), and win or lose with a Tea Party candidate (probability unknown). What would be the potential outcomes of each? It’s important to remember, in answering that question, that there are two battles going on in Washington today: one between the major parties and another within the Republican Party.
Winning with a Tea Party candidate would mean not only a win for the right but also a serious loss for Establishment Republicans. It would mean a vindication of the caucus that has been subject to heated criticisms and groundless accusations from both across the aisle and within its own party—not to mention political retribution and attempted ousters like the “Tea Party purge” of 2012. What’s more: a Tea Party presidency has the potential to show Americans the pettiness and backwardness of a GOP Establishment more interested in preserving their own than advancing the party or doing best by the country. It could change the Republican Party forever.
Certainly, if the Tea Party candidate lost against a Democrat, some would try to characterize the loss after the fact as proof of the need for more moderation, but the effect of a Tea Party candidate winning the nomination would far outweigh this, solidifying the caucus’ rising position in the party. It would effectively box out Establishment Republicans for the duration of the presidential race, silence those who so desperately criticize Tea Partiers as if their careers depended on it (I’m looking at you, Peter King), and reframe the national debate—again amounting to a loss for the Establishment GOP.
What if another Establishment Republican gets the nomination? It is possible that he could win if Democrats really drop the ball and Republicans maintain momentum over the failures of ObamaCare and the executive branch scandals of the last year. To win, though, a Republican candidate will need to do more to appeal to Tea Party Republicans than Romney did in 2012. He will need to show more vigor and more vision. He will need to at least inch in the direction of free markets, limited government, and individual rights. He will have to downplay his support of NSA spying on American citizens, stand firm in proposing to repeal ObamaCare (not “repeal-and-replace”!), oppose unnecessary involvement in foreign conflicts, etc. That is to say: he will have to move closer to the Tea Party, or at least pretend to have.
As 2008 and 2012 showed us, however, Americans are unenthusiastic about another McCain/Romney Republican. In their hands, the debate turns into a challenge of who can keep Americans awake long enough to explain that miniscule bit of nuance that distinguishes their plan from that of Democrats. Hardly inspiring. They have lost twice—once against a sitting president who should have been history’s easiest pushover. A candidate of that ilk would fare poorly even if Democrats were forced to depend on a default offering like Hillary Clinton. And if an Establishment GOP candidate loses again, that is when we will see the effects of that aforementioned trend of three presidential losses leading to serious reform within the losing party and a redefinition of the national debate. That is when we would see lasting change. Hopefully, that transformation will come along easier routes—for the sake of both the party and the country.
Looking at the options, the possible outcomes seem to be converging on a loss for Establishment Republicans. The probability of events that would lead someone like Chris Christie to victory without a serious turn to the right is growing smaller by the day. It is reasonable to think that if we don’t see it already in November of this year, by 2016 we may be having a serious discussion about the growing obsolescence of big-government conservatives. To say that the time is right for it would be mistaken. The change is long overdue.