The 2016 election will break new ground for the right and perhaps for both political parties. The race will feature a hawkish liberal (barring a catastrophe for Democrats); a bigoted, narcissistic populist; a Libertarian ticket with two experienced governors; and perhaps, in some states, a traditional ultra-conservative in David French. Be prepared to see significant changes in fortune for social conservatives, libertarians and hawks in both parties.
For social conservatives, fresh from losing the legal battle against gay marriage, 2016 could prove disastrous. Donald Trump, who barely checks the box on opposition to abortion (he’s not even certain he would defund Planned Parenthood) and who obviously cares little about gay marriage, will get a very large share of the GOP vote. A pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-drug-legalization Libertarian team will get some Republican votes as well. A few Republicans will go with the pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage Hillary Clinton. Social conservatives thereby will face a crisis. At the very least, many will see Trump’s perfunctory nod to social conservatives and the success of Libertarians as evidence the party can, as former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels once suggested, declare a truce on the culture wars. Put differently, the GOP (or whatever center-right party follows) may be able to do without them, and thereby downgrade or dismiss altogether some of their signature issues.
Worse still would be if evangelical leaders endorse Trump en masse, revealing themselves to be hypocritical and indifferent to, if not supportive of, his racist, cruel, misogynistic and vulgar discourse. As my colleague Michael Gerson writes, “Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves.” Frankly, they’ll be seen as nothing more than opportunistic charlatans. Their defense of “values” becomes meaningless if they defend a candidate without any.
Just as social conservatives are faltering as a force on the right, Libertarians may enjoy a breakout moment. Combined, the two governors on the ticket have 14 years of experience as chief executives. Among all the presidential contenders, they are the only ones to have cut taxes, vetoed spending bills and gone up against Democratic legislatures. They are both more qualified, by leaps and bounds, than Trump.
Gary Johnson won in deep-blue New Mexico twice (with 49.8 percent in 1994 and 54.5 percent in 1998). Vice presidential nominee Bill Weld won twice in Massachusetts, in 1990 and 1994, the second time with more than 70 percent of the vote. The tough-grading Cato Institute awarded Johnson “B” grades in each of his terms, writing in 1998 that he was “a true citizen-lawmaker who calls himself a libertarian” and commending him for “staunch fiscal conservatism,” which included a 10 percent cut in state employees and a record number of vetoes. On Weld (who got “A” and “B” grades), Cato wrote that in 1996 he “began to engage in a whirlwind of government downsizing. In his first two years in office, the state budget actually declined in nominal terms — an astonishing achievement given the pro-spending inclinations of the legislature. Weld privatized state services, slashed the public payroll, and cut general welfare assistance for employable adults. Weld has also been a supply-side tax cutter.”
In other words, if the Libertarian Party is ever to make a splash and rival the GOP, this is the year. Numerous questions abound, however, including whether the party can put together a presidential-quality infrastructure. As of now, the party will be on the ballot in 32 states, including Texas (which Trump must win) and Florida (considered crucial for both major parties). That still means everything, from fundraising to get-out-the-vote operations to communications functions, will need to be expanded and upgraded. More important, the ticket will need to shed the Libertarian image of flaky nonconformists and demonstrate there really is a market for shrinking government. Conservatives argue that Johnson cannot win over Republicans because of their foreign policy and social views, while Democrats argue Libertarians have no appeal to liberals who want an active government and substantial welfare state. Both or neither may be right.
And finally, party alignment on foreign policy may get scrambled. Clinton, judging from her foreign-policy speeches, is the only true internationalist (unless French makes it to the ballot) while Trump struggles to sound coherent. If Trump sticks to his erratic brand of anti-interventionism and loses to a hawkish Clinton, Democrats may take notice that there is broad electoral support to repudiate Obama-era retrenchment, retreat and reduction in military force. A Trump defeat may also sink the brand of anti-interventionism embraced on the right by figures such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Conversely, if Trump prevails and/or the Libertarian ticket excels with a neo-isolationist message, then support for strong U.S. leadership in the world may crumble.
In 2012, the GOP was a pro-national security, pro-business and pro-life (as well as anti-gay rights) party. No one can say with certainty what it will be after the 2016 race. Perhaps the heyday of social conservatives is over. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats for decades have been an anti-interventionist, big-tax-and-spend party where support for abortion and gay rights were litmus test issues. Maybe the Scoop Jackson wing (socially and economically liberal but hawkish) may finally re-emerge. Everything, it seems, is up for grabs.