Julian Zelizer: Tuesday night will tell us who's the next president and who will control Congress, but there are other key questions
The answers may impact how future presidential and congressional races are run, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
It’s almost over. The campaign that has consumed America’s attention for so many months finally reaches a conclusion. It seems that we have seen everything under the sun.
The nation has been shocked, it has been scandalized, it has been totally absorbed in this historic confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The obvious and most consequential questions that will be answered are who will inhabit the White House and which party will control Congress.
But it is also possible to step back and pinpoint three other questions that have loomed large during the final months of the campaign. The results that come in on election night should begin to answer these.
Is the Republican Party facing a civil war?
This is the question that Trump’s campaign has raised ever since he defeated a long list of “establishment” candidates in the primaries. His rise to power has generated commentary that the Republican Party is split in half. There is a major battle unfolding between the Trump Republicans and the rest of the party that has dominated the GOP for many years.
According to this narrative, the party will face a moment of reckoning when this election is over, particularly if Trump loses and the GOP enters into a moment of soul searching.
Yet not everyone agrees. Some argue that the party remains in pretty good shape. Partisan polarization will probably lead most Republicans to remain loyal to their party regardless of who is at the top of their ticket. Trump also represents powerful forces that have been reshaping the party for almost a decade. He might be an outlandish version of these new party forces, but he is a product rather than a generator of this political style and these political ideas.
Obviously, if Trump were to win the election the warnings of a party civil war would be considered overblown. Everyone loves to be victorious, and a defeat of Hillary Clinton would signal that the party under Trump is in pretty good shape. But even if he loses, many may conclude the “death of the GOP” has been an exaggeration.
Views on Election 2016
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- Michael D'Antonio: Trump broke all the rules
- Ed Lucas: Victory for Russia's Putin
- Frida Ghitis: Trump started a feminist revolution
- Jane Merrick: Brexit-style win bad for UK
- Ana Navarro: I'm voting for Hillary Clinton
- Paul Ryan: The choice facing America
- Julian Zelizer: What Trump did right
- Leslie Vinjamuri: Trump leads free world?
- Election in 140 characters
- Peter Bergen: President-elect Trump's inbox
- John Sutter: Stop Trump from wrecking the climate
It is very likely that Trump can pull about the same level of the electorate as Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. That has been the big story of the last week: that many Republicans are deciding to come home to back Trump. It is also quite possible that Trump might lose but that Republicans will maintain control of the Senate and the House as well as a large number of state legislatures. If this is the case, it will signal that the party can handle the tensions and divisions that have emerged.
If Trump loses, many may conclude his ideological stance on issues like immigration and the economy could have triumphed if the GOP candidate had been someone (like Mike Pence or Marco Rubio) without all of his negatives, such as his treatment of women and his inflammatory comments about Judge Curiel, Megyn Kelly and the Khan family.
Will there be a governing moment?
The most difficult aspect of American politics these days is that governing moments are far and few between. In our system of separated and fragmented power, it is always difficult for Washington to pass major legislation. Add to that a toxic partisan atmosphere fed by a 24-hour media, and the forces of gridlock are extraordinarily strong.
Governing moments are those periods when a crisis or large majorities allow for presidents to move legislation through Capitol Hill. After the plunge in the stock market in 1929 and united Democratic control of the White House and Congress in 1932, the nation saw a New Deal.
As a result of the civil rights movement and the election of 1964, which brought in huge Democratic majorities, Lyndon Johnson presided over passage of a Great Society. With the perception that the economy was in crisis under President Carter and with Republicans in control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, Ronald Reagan found room to push American policy to the right with a massive tax cut.
After 9/11, there was bipartisan support to remake American national security institutions. And in 2009 and 2010 Democratic majorities ushered Obama’s domestic agenda through Capitol Hill in the wake of a devastating financial crisis.
Is 2017 a time for action in Washington? Despite all of the bitter divisions we’ve seen on the campaign trail, there are issues on which it is possible to see the outlines of agreement between the parties. Trump has drawn enormous support from non-college educated, working-class Americans who are frustrated and angry about the economic insecurity they face.
Trump has spent much time railing against free trade and corporate behavior in a way that resonates with some key themes often voiced by progressive Democrats. Tighter restrictions within free-trade agreements and a higher minimum wage might be appealing to both parties, with Republicans thinking about why Trump drew so much support with his strategy of blue-collar conservatism and Democrats looking to achieve long-held goals.
If Trump should pull off an upset, he might see a major opportunity to put forth a grand bargain around these economic issues that could prove that he is capable of leading the nation.
Still, at this point it is difficult to see such a moment emerge. For Democrats it seemed possible a few weeks ago. With Donald Trump collapsing in the polls and Democrats picking up steam in the House and Senate races, there seemed to be potential for the kind of outcome America saw in 1964 or 2008 – a Democratic president elected with a Democratic Congress amid the repudiation of the Republican Party.
But with the polls tightening after the tumultuous weekend sparked by FBI Director James Comey’s letter, and Republican congressional candidates gaining strength in a number of important races, that seems less likely.
Nor does Clinton have the same kind of connection to grassroots movements or overall political vision that has animated some of the legendary presidents. And although the nation faces ongoing challenges, from police brutality against African Americans to economic inequality, most Americans do not feel that they are facing a national crisis akin to the Great Depression or the civil rights turbulence of the early 1960s. Not that we don’t face major issues, but the perception is different and that’s difficult for political figures to navigate.
Much more likely is a standoff between a Clinton White House and a Republican Congress that produces four years of gridlock, obstruction and investigation. Some Republicans have already been talking about the possibility of impeachment. In the Senate, there are open threats that the GOP would not confirm Supreme Court nominees put forward by a President Clinton.
There could be a governing moment if Trump defied the polls and won the White House, along with a Republican Congress. Despite all the tensions within the party, polarization and partisan incentive would have a powerful effect on getting the GOP leaders to find common ground.
Will voting rights be suppressed?
For all the talk of a “rigged election,” the real fear among many political experts is the potential impact of anti-voter-fraud measures that will make it more difficult in many states to vote. For many decades, as Ari Berman and Michael Waldman have recounted in their excellent books, there have been concerted efforts in conservative states to impose measures to make it more difficult to vote.
The measures were put into effect based on allegations of voting fraud although there has been no solid evidence of that kind of wrongdoing at any serious level. Once the Supreme Court overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder (2013), the floodgates opened. Though the courts have knocked down certain voting-rights restrictions, overall the measures remain in place.
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On Election Day, in what Berman called “The First Presidential Election Since Voting Rights Act Gutted,” it will be crucial to observe what effect those laws have in states like Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The impact of the laws could be magnified by the fears of intimidation and physical violence that have emerged as a result of Trump’s fiery rhetoric, in which he urges his supporters to act as poll watchers.
A little over 50 years since Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, the question of whether some states, with the consent of the Supreme Court, have successfully undermined the ability of eligible voters to exercise the fundamental right of democracy should be front and center as we search through all the data.
Voter disenfranchisement could also have a very important partisan effect this election. If the polls about a tightening of the race are accurate, any depression of the vote among marginalized and lower income communities could greatly benefit Trump – a countervailing force to the superior ground organization of the Clinton campaign – given that Democrats are counting on a robust turnout for victory.
We’ll start getting the answers to these questions Tuesday night. The results will play a major role in setting up the debates that the next president and Congress will have in the years to come.