The dual rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has presidential pundits and analysts sending their crystal balls and Ouija boards back to the shop for repairs.
Political professionals would be hard-pressed to cite a comparable moment in recent memory. Compasses are out of whack, confidence in consultants shaken.
It showed Thursday in a panel discussion hosted by Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency. On the hot seat, two of the center’s fellows — veteran Democratic operative Howard Dean and veteran Republican operative Ed Rollins — couched their remarks in a bit of humility.
“I am totally gun-shy. My ‘wrong’ percentage has been 98 percent” regarding Trump, Dean conceded. He has been the governor of Vermont, a 2004 presidential candidate and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and currently supports Hillary Clinton for president.
Rollins, who’s been an adviser to President Ronald Reagan and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, expressed amazement at recent events.
“If I said six months ago Donald Trump was on his way to be the nominee of our party,” he said, a bit hyperbolically, “I’d have lost my fellowship, I never would have been invited back to this university.”
But as both partisans sat for exchanges on a panel with Executive Dean Larry Levy of Hofstra’s suburban studies center and Politico chief correspondent Glenn Thrush, they ventured into what may lie ahead in the national contests.
General elections differ from primaries, of course.
Given Trump’s strong chances for the nomination, Rollins sees GOP donors and fundraisers directing their contributions away from the presidency to the Senate and House, where party candidates must run their down-ballot races.
Rollins said the thinking could go (emphasis added): “What difference is it if we have Hillary for four more years? We’ve had Obama for eight years. Let’s make sure we don’t lose the Congress.”
Dean also forayed into what may lie ahead at the Capitol. If Clinton beats Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the general election, Republicans “will find that being the party of ‘No’ has been a disaster for them,” he said. Then they “are going to have a willing partner in Hillary.”
“She can’t say that in the primaries,” Dean said (emphasis added). “The truth is, I think she did get some stuff done in eight years in the Senate through compromises, some of which she’s been pilloried for in debates.”
There was also some easier stuff to predict: Rollins and others noted how Republican Sen. Marco Rubio looks finished barring a total shock in Tuesday’s primary in his home state of Florida.
While acknowledging the successes of this year’s party insurgents, Rollins and Dean were skeptical of the final prospects for Sanders and Trump to reach the White House.
Dean said of his fellow Vermont denizen: “Bernie’s basically given the same speech for 40 years. . . . He’s sort of an old-line ’60s leftist with a class analysis of the world — which happens to be something that’s pretty effective right now.”
Rollins said of Trump: “Like many narcissists, which Trump is, they don’t like to be attacked. And any time he gets attacked he really loses his cool.”