That fight will be most intense if President Obama wins a second term. In that case, 2016 could be 2008 revisited, another wide-open race on both sides. And both parties will confront questions of fundamental identity: ideological purity versus political pragmatism.
The cascade of recriminations that would ensue after a loss by the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is already evident. Rick Santorum has been making the case that the party loses when it runs moderate nominees, pointing to Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.
“Every time we’ve run as a conservative, we’ve won,” Santorum said earlier this month. “Why? Because Americans want a choice.”
A Romney loss would pour kerosene on the conservative argument that voters want, as Barry Goldwater put it in 1964, “a choice, not an echo” — that they prefer, in the later formulation of Ronald Reagan, “bold colors” over “pale pastels.”
But the key question for Republicans is whether the correct lesson to derive from a Romney defeat would be that of Goldwater (landslide loss) or Reagan (two-term presidency).
I would argue, if Romney were to lose, that the message is not the candidate’s deficit of conservative bona fides. Rather, Romney’s problem is his dual lack of both political skills (grits, y’all?) and ideological convictions. He oozes inauthenticity, which threatens to repel conservatives and independents alike.
The 2016 argument for a return to conservative purity is especially unconvincing in light of the implacable demographic math of a future, more diverse electorate. Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to assemble a winning coalition if they cling to an unforgiving policy on immigration. Many on the Republican bench — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — seem to get this. It’s less clear that the Republican base does.
If Republicans face a potential debate in 2016 about the direction of their party, depending on the 2012 outcome, Democrats confront a near-certain one.
This is a debate that was largely ducked in 2008. Earlier in that primary season, party divisions were mostly obscured in the shared revulsion to eight years of George W. Bush. Later, as the field was winnowed to Hillary Clinton and Obama, the divisions were more about competence than ideology.
The understandable excitement over Obama’s eventual victory allowed him to run, and then to govern, as something of a chameleon. This was not a phenomenon, as with Romney, of shifting shape to fit the political circumstance as much as it was of being ideologically elusive and indeterminate enough that voters could fairly read into Obama whatever they chose. He was whatever change they decided to believe in.
Bill Clinton left office after two terms not only with an obvious heir apparent in Al Gore but having established a new model of a more centrist Democratic Party. If Obama wins reelection, he could have an obvious successor in Vice President Biden, who notably told CNN’s Candy Crowley last October that “I’ll make up my mind on that later.”
But even if Biden chose to run — at 73, he would be the oldest person ever elected president — he would surely face significant competition for the nomination, if not from Hillary Clinton, then from the next generation of Democrats, figures such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.).
More broadly, Obama has not forged a cohesive vision of what it means to be a Democrat that would outlast his tenure. Perhaps that understanding would gel in a second term, but for now the shape of the post-Obama Democratic Party is indistinct.
Even as the right assails Obama for alleged socialist tendencies, liberals have been frustrated throughout his presidency for supposed capitulations, on everything from the public option in health care to the debt-ceiling deal to civil liberties shortcuts in the war on terror. Whether Obama wins or loses, those suppressed tensions will inevitably surface in 2016.
All of this suggests that the next election — not this increasingly stale, unenlightening campaign — is the one truly worth watching.