One of the great things about the study of animal intelligence is that it is an unending pageant of discovery. Every attribute we thought was uniquely human, from language to tools and thinking to feeling, is not, it turns out. Yet there may still be one thing that sets us apart: our collective capacity for wonder, always asking, like a pesky child, “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?”
Four years ago, in April of 2015, things were not entirely going according to plan for Hillary Clinton. Despite her accomplishments, they seldom did. She began her second campaign for president that month, as her party’s prohibitive favorite, nearly as strong as an incumbent.
But in March, the State Department’s inspector general said she had used personal email accounts on her private server when conducting business as secretary of state. And then there was the series of highly paid speeches she had given to financiers; what was in those? She felt wealthy people were discriminated against, we later learned, and dreamed of a “hemispheric common market, with open borders.”
On the Republican side history favored the party to keep Democrats from another term in the White House – if only the GOP had one contender. Instead, by April, there were at least 15, including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. In his Trump Tower aerie, the reality star was still juggling yes and no for an answer. Scandal could not cloud his public life because it had never existed, and bankers were not paying him to give speeches; they were juggling his loans.
Polling showed that among the issues that mattered to voters were widening economic inequality, lack of access to health care despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act five years earlier, and, trailing by a good bit, climate change.
Clinton took these issues more seriously than Trump. She had detailed, incremental proposals for them on her website, yet none became her signature issue. On each, Bernie Sanders came out of seemingly nowhere to steal her thunder. By the time of the general election, the contest pitted perhaps the best prepared candidate in American history, arguing for the status quo, against the ringleader of a populist circus arguing to overturn whatever was not glued down.
Four years later, there seems little doubt that Trump will be his party’s nominee in 2020. But we know “seems” is tricky. He will run on his record, which he will exaggerate, as every incumbent does. If we were to look for historical echoes, we might be alive to a GOP insurgent – say, a former governor with some Senate experience who could be induced to run, perhaps someone who had been the nominee before; someone who would say, “I want better trade with China and immigration reform, too. The difference is, I actually know how to do those things, and without the pointless drama of tariffs and walls and this presidency that has embarrassed us abroad and in our homes. And I know that Vladimir Putin is a bad man.”
The Democratic field for 2020 already has broken the record for size the Republicans set in ’16. If the past could speak to us, we also might look for the dark horse to surge here – someone unlike almost all the others, who can nimbly sidestep purity tests, who brings no experience in D.C. to speak of, who can pioneer a third way that leaves party stalwarts gasping and trying to circle wagons that have minds of their own – someone who could say, for example, “I believe in a strong defense. I take pride – personally – in our armed forces, but I also appreciate our rich history of diplomacy. And there’s just no reason for the secretary of state to keep arguing to reduce the state department. It’s like the Army cutting the Air Force.”
A Romney-Buttigieg match-up would be something to see. We would count Americans lucky and the world besides – but this only make sense if history repeats itself, and we all know it does not.
But it echoes.