If you believe Cassandra and other doom-criers, this may be remembered as the year they gave an election and nobody came. The Republican Party’s skepticism of Donald Trump is exceeded only by the Democrats’ growing terror at the prospect of campaigning with Hillary Clinton. It looks like a bipartisan meltdown.
But appearances, as they often do, only deceive.
Preparations for November will proceed, the easily frightened in both parties will calm their hysteria, and you hardly need odds to bet that we’ll elect a new president on Nov. 8 and the republic will survive whomever the people choose.
But both Hillary and the Donald will inflict a lot of bruises before then, and the election, as it always does in a nation evenly divided between conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican and this year between male and female, could go either way. That’s the nature of a divided beast.
Nearly all the media ink and gasbaggery has been spent so far to lament the rise of Donald Trump, speculating that he will lay waste to Republican fortunes for at least a century, and this obscures the cloud, already considerably larger than a man’s hand, hovering ever closer over the Lady MacBeth of Little Rock, Washington, Gotham and points between. She’s a woman in trouble, and not in a family way.
She’s counting on a big turnout from voters too young to remember who, exactly, she was and is, but a Fox News poll finds that 67 percent of voters 35 and under have an unfavorable view of her and of what kind of president she would likely make. When pollsters asked these younger voters whether they were “enthusiastic,” “pleased,” “displeased,” or “scared of her,” 29 percent say they’re “scared.” Only 6 percent say they’re enthusiastic. (Counting both sides of her family, they alone might be enough to make up 6 percent.)
Bernie Sanders is still the long-shot candidate to deprive her of the Democratic nomination, but he clearly has the lady spooked. He wants another debate with her in advance of the New York primary on April 19, and she sounds too frightened to agree to it. A top Hillary aide says Bernie will have to change his “tone” to get even consideration of another debate.
“This is a man who said he could never run a negative ad ever,” Joel Benenson, who admits that he’s the chief Clinton strategist, told CNN News. “He’s running them now. They’re planning to run more. Let’s see the tone of the campaign he wants to run before we get to any other questions.”
It’s tough to be the inevitable nominee and then a fortnight later to be the frightened front-runner, startled by shadows and flinching at the creaking sounds of ghosts in the attic. Bernie Sanders boasts that he has the momentum, coming off three overwhelming victories in the West, as the campaign moves past the halfway mark in the endless schedule of primaries and caucuses. Who can doubt him?
The Sanders triumphs in the West were not unexpected, and they were triumphs in out of the way places, but they were impressive nonetheless for his margins — winning 73 percent in Washington state, 70 percent in Hawaii and 82 percent in Alaska. Those are landslide numbers any time and anywhere, and together with other late results they tell Hillary loud and clear that nobody likes her very much, just as a lot of Republicans don’t seem to like the Donald very much.
Mr. Sanders, who is trying to get sharp with Hillary now, may regret playing the patsy in the earlier primaries, saying most of all that he was tired of hearing questions about Hillary’s “damn emails” and putting beyond polite Democratic discussion the speculation about a criminal indictment of her. An indictment is, in fact, highly unlikely. When a president tells his Justice Department to jump, the only acceptable answer is, “how high?”
But the party elders understand how a beating like Hillary is beginning to take can damage a candidate, particularly a candidate trained to expect a cakewalk, for the real campaign of summer and fall. Donald Trump, if he is in fact the Republican candidate, does not do the patsy, even for a gentle lady hotly pursued by the FBI.
The next big tests for both Hillary and the Donald lie dead ahead next week in Wisconsin. If Hillary wins she can halt “the bern” moving toward New York. If Bernie wins, the momentum takes him to New York where a victory would scramble the arithmetic good and proper. Joe Biden would be entitled to regrets for not getting in when the getting was good, and wondering whether there’s still one last chance. Hillary should remember Satchel Paige’s famous warning: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.