One way or the other, the post-party presidency is coming

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, holds up a Texas flag on Tuesday after speaking with supporters in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he received a briefing on Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

You’d have to think that some part of President Trump was relieved to be in Texas this week — to finally be confronting crisis rather than creating it, to be demonstrating some unity rather than driving people further apart.

Of course, Trump being Trump, he somehow managed to speak at a briefing in the middle of a major disaster zone without once mentioning the victims of the hurricane, which he had already admitted to exploiting for its TV ratings.

“What a crowd!” Trump exclaimed upon leaving his event at a firehouse, where 1,000 Texans had gathered for what he seemed to think was an impromptu rally. “What a turnout!”

Back in Washington, though, there were no tributes — only a growing sense, now openly discussed in both parties, that Trump’s hold on the office is proving increasingly tenuous. Rebuked by congressional leaders for his tolerance of white nationalists and for a controversial pardon, abandoned publicly by some members of his own Cabinet, Trump is fast becoming the Tom Hanks of presidents, stranded on his own little political island, futilely throwing coconuts at the wall.

His approval rating, now stuck at around 35 percent in a series of polls, opens the door wide not just to a tumultuous midterm election season, but also to a long and unpredictable presidential campaign after that.

By this time next year, unless something major changes, every third Democrat in Washington will be lining up to form an exploratory committee. But the more interesting maneuvering may be in the Republican Party, where I’m betting we’ll see more than one serious primary challenger step forward. (I’m looking at you, Marco Rubio.)

And then there’s the unlikely, emerging partnership between two idiosyncratic and popular governors named John — Kasich, the Republican from Ohio, and Hickenlooper, his lesser-known Democratic colleague from Colorado — who have begun acting very much like a possible bipartisan ticket in recent weeks, holding a series of events around health care. They’re set to preview their reform plan in interviews today.

Whether or not John Squared holds any real promise as a presidential campaign tandem (and we’ll get to that in a moment), the whole thing raises a larger question that I find highly relevant in the post-Trump moment.

Is America ready for an independent presidency? And should our two fossilized parties be a lot more worried about it than they are?

Well, all right, that’s two questions. But they get to the same central idea.

In full disclosure, I’m probably not the guy you should turn to first if you want a disinterested answer to all this. I’ve been relentlessly harping on the potential for an independent president pretty much since I started following politicians around the country 20 years ago. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look an awful lot like a nail.

I happened onto the political scene as a writer in the moment just after Ross Perot — a demonstrably disturbed person who announced that Republicans had tried to ruin his daughter’s wedding — managed to score 18 percent of the vote as an independent candidate promising to balance the budget.

For several years afterward, I spent a lot of my time in the company of politicians like Jesse “the Body” Ventura, the independent governor of Minnesota who for a time seemed like a formidable presidential contender himself, and John McCain, who back then captivated the country by taking on both party establishments.

(Yes, millennials, that John McCain. Go look it up in Wikipedia, and stop expecting the rest of us to do all the work for you.)

I absolutely thought Colin Powell had a chance to win the presidency as an independent in 1996, before he removed himself from contention. I was less convinced by a potential candidate I met in 1999 — some billionaire with the last name of Trump.

Here’s what I came to believe back then, and what I have written many times since: America has no use for a third party, since most of us aren’t all that enamored of the two we already have. But that’s a different thing from a truly independent bid, undertaken by someone (or a couple of someones) who dispenses with primaries and breaks the party paradigm altogether.

My sense, still, is that we’re a lot closer to seeing that kind of campaign succeed than anyone in Washington really imagines, just as we were a lot closer to the hostile takeover of a national party than anyone thought before 2016.

Over the last 20 years, during a time in which the emerging digital culture has weakened just about every institution in America, the grip of the two parties on our political system has loosened considerably. Our politics may feel more polarized between ideological camps, but that’s mostly because the parties are controlled by an ever-winnowing group of diehard activists who present the rest of us with stark, binary choices.

The country’s openness to more alternatives, as measured by the number of Americans who identify themselves as politically independent, has never been more palpable, or more consistent with the way we live our lives generally.

In a very real sense, Trump’s insurgent campaign represented a kind of independent movement inside the Republican Party, which he effectively occupied and then replaced with his family brand. He obliterated the outdated belief that party loyalty matters anything near as much as personality.

Meanwhile, the two principal and related barriers to entry for an independent candidate — the money needed to run a competitive race and the arcane ballot laws that vary wildly by state — have been made vastly less onerous by the spread of broadband.

Sure, it’s still not easy to organize a state-by-state ballot-access drive, or to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. But it’s way easier than it ever was before, and if anyone still buys the myth that money is the driving force in a national campaign, they should study this last election. It turns out free TV time and social media followings are exponentially more valuable.

Which brings us back to Kasich and Hickenlooper, whose flirtation with a bipartisan ticket was reported last week by Axios’s Mike Allen. That really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, not least because Kasich’s closest political adviser is John Weaver, whom I met when he was openly exploring the same thing for McCain in 2000. Weaver has long been a fellow traveler when it comes to upending the system.

(In an interview last week on “Meet the Press,” Kasich, who came away from the last campaign with something of a national following, tried to brush aside questions about a joint ticket, and finally said it wasn’t happening. Which I’m sure is true — at the moment.)

Personally, I find Kasich and Hickenlooper to be among the more genuine and compelling characters in politics today. Neither man is going to be carried along in the prevailing currents of their parties, which are headed toward ideological stridency and confrontation. That makes running in primaries a dubious option.

The problem for the two Johns, should they get serious about a historic joint venture, is that neither of them commands the kind of celebrity coverage that would follow, say, Kanye West or Mark Cuban. And neither of them is a billionaire like Mike Bloomberg, who briefly considered his own independent bid in 2016 (and probably wakes up every day wishing he had a time machine).

They’d have to build a large, grassroots organization of moderates, which is never easy, and they’d have to hope that the two parties ultimately rally around Trump, on one side, and an ideologue like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, on the other.

It’s not a high-percentage bet, to be sure, but neither would I call it crazy. It might also be good for the country.

The larger point here, though, is that even by playing with the possibility, these guys are on the vanguard of something. Whether it’s a couple of governors like Kasich and Hickenlooper, or more likely some TV celebrity we haven’t even thought of yet, the nonaligned presidency is probably inevitable, and it could happen as early as 2020.

Yeah, I’ve been saying that forever. It just happens still to be true.

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