Right now, it looks very much as if the two major political parties in America are in a race to see which one can destroy itself first.
On the Republican side, Donald J. Trump not only leads but dominates the presidential race. Crude, erratic, unprincipled and unelectable, Trump, if he were to win the nomination, would do catastrophic damage to his party. But the Democratic Party, if it were to nominate Hillary Clinton, would be inviting a different kind of disaster.
One clue as to how vulnerable Republicans consider Hillary Clinton to be is the size of the Republican presidential field—17—the largest in a century. One explanation for this conga line of candidates is a sense that history is on their side. It is difficult for the same party to win three consecutive presidential terms. But much of the optimism of Republicans has to do specifically with Clinton.
Since the 2008 campaign, it has been pretty clear that she is, to put it mildly, not a natural political talent. Clinton lost a nomination she was heavily favoured to win. Her campaign was poorly managed, plagued by indecision, confusion and poisonous infighting. During that run she showed herself to be, in Barack Obama’s withering phrase, “likable enough”.
Things haven’t gotten any better for her since. In public, Clinton often comes across as inauthentic, charmless and brittle, and she is poor on the stump. In these respects, she is the antithesis of her husband.
Clinton’s supporters point to her experience as a strength. But that can be a double-edged sword. Her first incursion into federal policy was her health care plan, which politically speaking was a disaster.
It led to Republicans gaining control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
During Clinton’s eight years as a senator, she left barely a trace. While she was secretary of state, America’s relationship with its allies worsened, global instability increased and American influence decreased. If Republican presidential candidates are smart, they will use her experience to establish a record of incompetence.
All of this was known before the current presidential campaign cycle began earlier this year. Since then, there has been an intervening event that may well turn Clinton from a weak candidate into a crippled one: the stunning revelation in early March that she conducted State Department business on a private email server.
And here’s an ominous precedent: General David H. Petraeus, the former CIA director and one of the greatest military commanders of his generation, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of mishandling classified information, a violation that may prove to be lesser than those Clinton may have committed.
Clinton has lost control of events as a result of an obsessive need to manipulate them. And Republicans, who already considered her something of an ethical mess, are finding she has exceeded even their expectations.
Clinton has already suffered significant political damage. Her once formidable leads against Republicans and her primary Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, have narrowed. In a recent Quinnipiac University swing state poll, Clinton’s favourability ratings in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania were very negative, while her honest and trustworthy numbers were in the low 30s.
If nominated, Clinton will be the weakest Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis in 1988. But many Republicans, presented with this golden opportunity, are enamoured of a man who, if he is the nominee, will be their weakest since Barry Goldwater in 1964. The Republican Party has a much deeper and more impressive field than the Democrats do, so they still have plenty of alternatives. But as summer gives way to fall, one of those alternatives had better emerge. The Democratic nominee will be beatable, but not if Donald Trump, unreason personified, is the unappealing face of Mr Lincoln’s party.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations.