March Madness is here, and with March Madness come strained political analogies. Here’s one that’s not horrible: the Democrats have no bench for Election 2016. Even if Barack Obama whips Romney like a 16 seed, he’s committed to repeating George W. Bush’s last and most needless error—keeping a guy at veep who can’t run for president. Joe Biden will never be president. And in four years, neither will any of the Democrats’ presumptive frontrunners. Some unknown might seize the moment, but he or she will be crushed in the general by the vengeful machine to be known as the 2016 Republican party. Laugh now, Democrats, but know: 2016 will be a humiliation.
Instead of alarm, Dem operatives are red hot with smug triumphalism. Veteran strategist Bob Shrum clucks approvingly: “When Romney prevails and then fails and the predictable repercussions come, 2016 will see the Tea-types finally having their way. President (Hillary) Clinton, President Biden, President Cuomo, or President O'Malley will be very grateful.” Set aside the Republicans for now. And ignore the Biden reference. (Flattery that over the top is a formality. Shrum knows that as well as anybody.) Then, go look up this O’Malley person—who?—and ask yourself whether you see a president.
Next comes Hillary, who will be 69 in 2016 and doesn’t owe Barack Obama one damn thing. After this thankless tour of duty at State, she’ll spend the rest of her life living out Candace Bushnell’s next great novel. In ’16 she’ll also have to contend with Andrew Cuomo, who is running for president right now and is the Mitt Romney of the Democratic party. Shamelessly ‘moderate,’ instinctively Clintonian, and corporatist to the core, Cuomo himself will be too nauseated by the eerie experience of fending off a man even more pathologically ambitious than he, California Lt. Gov. Patrick Bateman, to steamroll the competition the way Romney hoped to but can’t.
Don’t bother casting about for other hopefuls. There aren’t any—even though The New York Times has reported that the 2016 election is “already upon us.” Barack “Sui Generis” Obama has left the Democrats no political heir. Elizabeth Warren is blowing a promising career as a winning outsider to become the next Martha Coakley. Democrats would sooner mock themselves and vote for Biden than switch from Obama to Brand-X Virginia milquetoasts like Mark Warner or Tim Kaine. Rahm Emanuel is a monster. Cory Booker is too smart for this crap. Jennifer Granholm has the good sense to do television.
Republicans, by contrast, have an embarrassment of riches—and not the “some of my best friends own NASCAR teams” variety. Guys like Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and even Bobby Jindal make the current crop of candidates look like the warmed-over ‘90s throwbacks they are. (Thanks, George W. Bush’s discredited administration!) And as for the GOP’s women, it’s just sad to stack up Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum against the likes of Nikki Haley, Kristi Noem, and—say it—Sarah Palin.
Comfortable consultants of Shrum’s stripe must surely be secretly sick over how easily the GOP can right itself in four years. If Romney “prevails and then fails,” the only guarantee is that the Republican establishment and alienated conservatives will have something in common again—mutual relief. (Ditto if Romney actually loses instead to Santorum, the race’s lone establishment conservative.) If Romney loses to Obama, it’ll be clear that neither the Tea Party types (who backed everyone from Cain to Perry) nor the heavyweight insiders (like Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, and Mitch Daniels) went to bat for Mitt. The biggest obstacle to a modus vivendi between elites and the base—and a consensus candidate who satisfies them both—is Romney himself. With him gone, 2016 will most likely become a candyland of unifying possibility.
Meanwhile, Democrats will be forced to wade through the unresolved issues left behind by eight years of emotional overcompensation for the actually disappointing Obama years. Polls show that half of voters think his first administration is a failure and his marquee achievement, Obamacare, is garbage. The president remains personally popular, but he is haunted by the ghost of Dubya, whose second term was over about two months after it started. That’s not the kind of momentum a party or a nominee wants cruising into 2016. My guess? It’ll be the Democrats’ turn to revert to ‘90s form, with a stale pack of third-stringers fighting for pride of place in a dreary string of low-turnout primary races.
Them’s the breaks for political parties, is one way of looking at it. But the ideological left itself, party aside, has its own tough row to hoe. Liberalism on social issues sells itself a lot better than it sells a candidate. Whether Obamacare stands or falls, liberals will have to figure out what they can do for an encore. Anything more modest looks like an admission that the era of big government is over (again). Anything more ambitious looks like dementia.
Meanwhile, right-of-center people are growing ever more libertarian. Hard as it is to envision today, the GOP they’ll be voting for in 2016 won’t give today’s progressives much to snicker about.
James Poulos blogs at Forbes. He is on Twitter at @jamespoulos.