It will be a constant refrain this year: 2016 is the most important election in our lifetimes. We tend to hear it every presidential cycle, and this one is certainly no different. The argument will go like this: the next President stands to nominate at least two Supreme Court nominees that will tip the balance of juridical decisions for the next several decades; the choice will be between the first female/Jewish president, and an authoritarian megalomaniac/Tea Party extremist with the power to remake our government and destroy the social welfare state; and America may not even survive the wrong choice.
All of those things may be true. But reality is rarely quite so dramatic. In truth, the 2020 election will likely have far greater consequences than 2016.
First of all, there’s no reason to believe given the current age of the Supreme Court justices that the 2020 President will not also have at least one if not two seats to fill on the bench. It’s hard to imagine any of the liberal justices retiring under a Cruz Administration or any of the conservative ones retiring under a Clinton administration–and as we saw this year, mortality can be a fickle thing to predict.
But the biggest reason that little stands to change after 2016 is the composition of the House and Senate, combined with the fact that Donald Trump is likely to be the GOP nominee. If Hillary Clinton wins in 2016, she will still have the completely intransigent GOP House to deal with. One of the biggest frustrations of Sanders supporters in the campaign is the strange notion that Sanders is promoting fairy tale policies like a $15 minimum wage, breaking up the big banks and free college tuition, while Clinton is offering a much more realistic alternative of $12 minimum wage, a tighter regulation scheme for Wall Street, and needs-based help for college tuition. The truth is that Clinton’s policy aspirations have no higher chance whatsoever of passing through Paul Ryan’s House than Sanders’ do.
Both campaigns are running pie-in-the-sky policy proposals at least through 2020 and likely 2022. That’s because Republican gerrymandering of the House has made it practically impossible for Democrats to win it back, and Democrats won’t have the opportunity to change the district lines until after the 2020 census and the 2022 election.
In the Senate, Democrats will almost certainly make gains in the upper chamber this year and probably win it over entirely. A Trump or Cruz Administration will have a very hard time completely remaking the economy and society over the top of a Democratic Senate–or even 49 Democratic Senators–regardless of their power elsewhere. Meanwhile, a Clinton or Sanders Administration won’t be able to do much with either a GOP or Democratic Senate as long as Paul Ryan remains Speaker. The greatest power of the presidency will remain court nominations, cabinet appointments and executive actions.
And then there’s the economy. As both Obama and Clinton backers have been at great pains to point out, the economy has been in a long and steady recovery for years by most standard indicators. The unemployment rate is has been falling for months, GDP is growing, asset prices are rising, and even wages are finally slowly beginning the rise. The problem is the business cycle: years-long recoveries tend to be followed by downturns, and there will almost certainly be a downturn within the next four years regardless of who is President. It’s not usually the presidential cycle during boom years one has to worry about in terms of an authoritarian takeover of the country. It’s the one that happens when populist anger is high during an economic crisis.
Look ahead instead to 2020. The 2020 election cycle is when the nation will determine the control of governor’s mansions and legislatures that decide Congressional district lines. Those district lines in turn will likely determine control of the House for the next decade. After another economic downturn that punishes the middle class but lets the rich off lightly shows again that the crisis facing the American economy cannot be resolved with another set of minor tweaks, the nation will be even more primed make a choice between going much further left, or much further right. And at least one or two Supreme Court justices will remain in play.
That will be the most important election of our lifetimes by far, nor is it entirely clear that winning in 2016 makes winning in 2020 that much likelier. A Clinton victory in 2016 could lead to an easy re-elect in 2020 against a divided and fractured Republican Party–or it could lead to a Democratic destruction after an economic downturn that sees Nikki Haley take the oath of office in January 2021 and usher in another decade of GOP control of Congress. A Trump victory in 2016 could lead to fascism in America and the elimination of what remains of our social welfare state–or it could lead to a GOP civil war and post-downturn meltdown that leads to a series gigantic Democratic waves delivering the 2020 election to Democrats on a silver platter, and decades of Congressional control alongside it.
The future can be capricious and unexpected. Democratic activists must do everything in their power to win elections for Democrats up and down the ballot in 2016 regardless of who the nominee is. But it’s very likely that 2016 is a mere warmup to the colossal and more consequential battle to come.