With fewer than 100 days to go until November 8, the time for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to put on a charm offensive to change deeply rooted impressions of themselves is growing short. Thus, the general-election contest is more than likely going to be an incredibly negative slugfest in which each candidate seeks to drive up the other’s already-high unfavorable ratings — less about persuading “swing voters” and more about motivating unhappy partisans to put on the party harness and show up at the polls.
However that works out for either candidate, the dynamics of this election are creating the conditions for one truly hellacious post-election hangover in the losing party. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has identified the mantra we are going to hear on November 9, and probably well before then:
The simple fact is that Trump is the only Republican Clinton can beat and Clinton is the only Democrat Trump can beat.
The flip side of that assessment, of course, is that Trump is the only Republican who could lose to Clinton, and Clinton’s the only Democrat who could lose to Trump.
No one, of course, can really prove that assertion, but if it is broadly believed, then the recriminations in the losing party will be deep and wide, above and beyond the disdain for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that already exists in Republican and Democratic ranks.
In the case of Trump, the nominee’s obnoxious personal attributes will be compounded if he loses by the ideological motives various Republicans have for burying his candidacy and salting the earth around it. “Real conservatives” will have another “I told you so” example of how a departure from the One True Path leads down the primrose path to defeat. Establishment Republicans will try to get the GOP to return to the prescriptions they offered in the post-2012 autopsy report, with its downplaying of cultural issues and its emphasis on friendliness toward Latinos. And the Reformicons, who actually think Trump was striking an essential chord on both immigration and middle-class economics, will be especially exercised in fighting to protect those goals while putting the blame on Trump personally. If Republicans not only lose the White House again but suffer serious down-ballot losses, the battle will be extra loud and frantic.
A Hillary Clinton loss would affect Democrats a bit differently, insofar as she was the candidate of the Democratic Establishment from the get-go. But Democrats who look at the demographics of Bernie Sanders’s primary voters and see the future, and also credit those polls showing Bernie doing better than Hillary against Trump, will have an ostensibly open-and-shut case that the Donkey Party needs to bury the entire Clinton era of baby-boomer centrism and move left. All that’s missing for this argument is an obvious post-Bernie leader of the progressive Democratic cause (Elizabeth Warren will be 71 in 2020). Meanwhile, centrist Democrats may well argue that a more left-leaning candidate would have done worse than Clinton; they, too, will have a post-Clinton, post-Obama leadership crisis unless FLOTUS picks up the banner. And if Clinton loses and her party doesn’t make down-ballot gains, there may be legitimate fears of long-term minority status for Democrats (though a Trump presidency could be just what the doctor ordered).
In any event, you can add to the stakes of this high-stakes election the fact that the losing party is almost certainly going to go through a struggle for its soul, while the winning party, whatever its internal problems, is distributing patronage and claiming a mandate.