Frum: To widen the aperture a little, the question I’m driving at is: How big a deal is this election going to prove, ultimately?
Since 1992, we’ve lived through a political era characterized by the following:
A) polarized and relatively close presidential elections, with a small but decided advantage for Democratic candidates;
B) a Republican advantage in Congress, especially the House, and in state races;
C) gridlock as the norm, punctuated by rare moments of ultra-activism (1995, 2002-03, 2009-2010).
Will 2016 be the next chapter in this story? Or could America be at a break moment—a 1968—when one political chapter ends and another starts?
Shrum: You may be right—unless Trump melts down. A President Hillary Clinton could certainly face the same kind of gridlock that we have seen for the last five and a half years. But on some issues we would see movement; the Supreme Court, for example, would acquire a ninth justice. Ironically, that could benefit Republicans by putting contentious social issues that disadvantage them pretty much to rest. Legislatively Clinton would try to reach out and find some areas of agreement. That didn't work for Obama and it might not work for her. On the other hand, if the GOP loses decisively in 2016, political necessity may push the party toward being a governing instrument again. That would put the leadership at odds with gerrymandered members who elevate ideology above all else, and seen instinctively hostile to any Democratic president, especially one named Obama or Clinton. If I'm wrong and somehow Trump wins, there may be a different kind of gridlock—not only between him and Democrats, but between him and many of his fellow Republicans. (That assumes, of course, that he is a Republican in anything but name only.)
Frum: It’s not a matter of me being “right”—because my own view is that 2016 is shaping up as a chapter-ender. Look at the Democratic side, for example. Ronald Reagan was able to hand his party’s nomination more or less uncontroversially to his closest associate, George H.W. Bush. Barack Obama is at least as popular in the country as Ronald Reagan was in 1988, and perhaps even more dominant in his party … And yet Obama’s closest colleague is facing an all-out insurrection that still hasn’t quelled. That insurrection expresses a radical critique of the Obama presidency. It’s also unmistakably racially based: Bernie Sanders dominates among white Democrats; Hillary Clinton among minorities. Actually, Revolt of the White Democrats would be a good title for a book about the Sanders challenge.
And of course on the Republican side, the break with the party’s past is even more radical and abrupt.
Shrum: David, in one sense I think of you as always "right" but never far right. In my view, the insurgencies in the two parties are quite different in character. Democratic dissatisfaction is driven primarily by economic conditions. The economy is improving—13 million new jobs have been created—and incomes are actually beginning to rise. But that has not been fully felt yet and the Sanders movement is amplified by millennials who are naturally attracted to an insurgent, and for whom the cost of college is a dominant issue. But most Sanders supporters will come home to Clinton as the Democratic nominee. The differences between them are not fundamental—and as Sanders says, she is clearly preferable to Trump, who will be the great unwitting unifier for Democrats. Not since the founding fathers has someone prominent, genuinely prominent, in the public eye for 24 years been elected president; it appears that will change with Hillary Clinton. The early GOP front runner succumbed to Bush fatigue; she did not experience a similar downfall. In contrast, I believe that the Republican revolt that produced Trump has deeper causes—not just economic, but a sense of frustration about the sweeping cultural and social changes in the country. The Trump constituency is on the wrong side of history—and the Republican Party will have to come to terms with the changing America or face sharply diminished odds of winning the White House at any point in the near and medium-term future barring a serious economic or foreign crisis.