"What can ever break the logjam in Washington?" came a question at the small industry event. Knowing guffaws greeted the retort from the speaker, a recognizable figure in what we used to call print media: "A coup by Colin Powell, followed by a new constitution with a parliamentary form," as I recall.
Nearly a decade later, hopes of a Powell coup are dwindling, and a new constitution is a dead letter. But our politics have taken on a decidedly parliamentary cast, and we're not set up to handle it.
It's tempting to call Donald Trump a modern George Wallace and leave it at that: a potential third-party spoiler to the establishment candidates, pandering in brusque, elusive terms to an ailing white middle class on issues of race, ethnicity and international brinksmanship. From the Nativists to Barry Goldwater to David Duke, race has inflamed and tested one party or the other; so have war and inequality.
But more is going on today than a single issue, however dark or persistent. Not the political alignment of our parties, but our entire electoral system is under stress. The proof is that we face the possibility of not just one credible third-party candidate, but several.
If Trump bolts the Republicans, it will give cover to Bernie Sanders to challenge Hillary Clinton under his own banner, marketing his socialist solutions to fast-rising class tensions. If Clinton continues to flag, Joe Biden or even Al Gore might bring their own flavors of the Democratic establishment to the arena, inflected, respectively, with labor and environmental priorities. In a sufficiently fragmented general-election field, Ted Cruz or Scott Walker could well test the waters for a Tea Party run alongside, say, Jeb Bush.
Any national candidacy outside the two-party system is tough sledding, and even a single one remains unlikely. But these personalities offer highly divergent priorities and policies, and in stark contrast to Ross Perot in 1992, each commands a substantial, passionate and organic constituency. Finding share of voice for them all is the defining challenge of the 2016 cycle. Two parties may not be enough.
These candidates are linked only by their appeal to authenticity, and less disposed to subsume their brands in major party coalitions than factional leaders were eduring the New Deal or Moral Majority eras. Many Republican insurgents are perniciously anti-establishment (and in Trump's case not even verifiably Republican). Trump in particular has end-run the half-century half-truce between Eastern moderates and Western conservatives and blunted the party's strategic drive for Latino votes--all while, paradoxically, coaxing the "policy moderate" label from a few pundits, so elusive is his policy agenda. He is, at best, a coalition of one.
Some fractures do not heal with the best of physicians; it is hard to see Ben Carson mending the breach, much less Rand Paul. Jeb Bush's halting response has so far been defined chiefly by that familiar silver foot in his mouth.
On the Democratic side, where that Clinton triangulated recalcitrantly to the right after the 1994 midterms and prevailed, this Clinton triangulates awkwardly to the left and languishes. Her recent strained chat with organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement suggests it is not working for her on race; given her reticence on the Keystone pipeline, it may not even work on the environment.
Traditional leadership--the ability to sell a vision with some connection to political and policy realities--might make the difference, but is missing from the dominant contenders. Among the second tier, Biden commands sympathy and emotional response; my own preferred candidate, John Kasich, brings uncommon enthusiasm to a fairly common-sense policy program that found consensus in Ohio, including for his earnest engagement on matters of racial justice. But the likeliest outcome remains a weak establishment candidate, a consensus second (or third) choice for each major party.
Where will the hodgepodge of passionate offcasts cleave to then? Or, since Northeast Republicans and other moderates are already nearly extinct, consider: What if a topsy-turvy, drawn-out electoral story for the ages hands the election to the strongest of many weak splinters in each party? Let's say the crazy fantasies of the fringes--less crazy than just a few weeks ago--come true, and Hillary implodes as Trump cements his lead? What becomes of the majority center if that's the bit that gets left behind?
What's the value of our two-party system in which only a handful actively back the two standard-bearers? Bill Clinton's plurality win in 1992, and Al Gore's majority defeat in 2000, may prove but a foretaste of the distortions and frustrations to come.
For all our fealty to Trump's dealmaking, America today is in no mood to give ground. The hashtag controversies that animate today's politics are of the social media era, and we have grown accustomed to the promise of a tailored experience. What happens if we click on our candidates, and not 45 or 50 percent of us, but 65 or 70 percent, end up as horrible losers? In this, at least, Trump will have been proved right after all. Colin Powell will have missed his window, but a big chunk of the rest of us might be ready for that parliamentary coup.