A dozen ‘what if’s for the political year ahead | SONDERMANN – coloradopolitics.com

The human mind is conditioned for steadiness and predictability. It is our nature to assume that the future will proceed in a manner to which we are largely accustomed. We tend to approach life in a linear way of putting one foot in front of the other.

However, in looking to the political year ahead, such a straight-line analysis is likely to be widely and wildly off the mark.

What looks in the fall of 2023 to be a dreary rematch between two past-prime candidates in Joe Biden and Donald Trump is far from assured. Both are staring at mortality tables and one has the ignoble burden of facing as many as four all-too-real criminal trials in the intervening months.

Even if Biden and Trump end up as the two major contestants, the road from here to there will be winding with plenty of sharp, unmarked turns.

These volatile times, an insatiable media ecosystem and two leading characters hardly up to the moment all but guarantee that the coming year will be the antithesis of stasis and equilibrium. With that in mind, here are a dozen “what if’ contretemps that could well come into play.

  1. What if a significant health crisis, or worse, befalls either Biden, soon approaching his 81st birthday, or Trump, only three years his junior and hardly a standard-bearer for health and fitness? Even a minor health scare, or a presidential stumble or tumble, can have outsized impact. Perhaps a stethoscope will be as important to each campaign as the latest polling data or focus group dial meters.

  2. What if a judge (looking at you, federal district judge Tanya Chutkan) hauls Trump into the courtroom and in unmistakable terms imposes something akin to a gag order, preventing the former president from litigating the case in public and airing his “stolen election” fiction and grievances on the daily campaign trail?

  3. What if Trump is convicted, even in just one case? While he would certainly appeal and a judge might well defer the imposition of sentence pending that appeal, we would be in uncharted waters amid high drama.Would the Republican Party give him the nomination in such a circumstance? Would the country seriously contemplate electing a felon either residing in a prison cell or staring at the prospect of one? Or would that finally write the end chapter of a man who thrives on upheaval?

  4. What if bad news at home intrudes and the domestic situation is worse in the coming year? While not in most economic forecasts, it is far from impossible that inflation could tick back up and interest rates climb further. Crime could become even more prevalent. Covid could rear its head again and impose difficult, painful decisions on the executve. Congressional dysfunction makes a government shutdown a real consideration.

  5. Ditto for world events. What if the war in Ukraine turns south and some allies bail? What if Putin moves on a Baltic state? Or if China, seeking to mask its economic woes, ramps up the pressure on Taiwan? Or if some totally new hotspot emerges?

  6. What if the movement to keep Trump off the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gathers steam and legal footing? This disqualification clause dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and bars former civilian and military officials from holding office if they “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. government. It is at least arguable that this provision is applicable to Trump. A number of legal scholars, including conservative ones previously affiliated with the Federalist Society, are making that case.

  7. What if a number of GOP challengers drop out, allowing anti-Trump sentiment to consolidate around a single alternative? For that matter, don’t completely dismiss the possibility of Trump or Biden withdrawing either for personal or political reasons. Or in Trump’s case, as part of some post-conviction deal to avoid prison time. This might be approaching fantasy, but what if both Trump and Biden call it a day? That is not totally beyond the pale as if Trump were to hit the sidelines, the entire rationale for Biden’s candidacy instantly disappears.

  8. What if new candidates wait for the demolition derby to take its toll and then enter the race? On the Republican side, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin continues to generate buzz as a bridge between Trump and anti-Trump factions. Among Democrats, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s consuming ambition is a poorly-kept secret.

  9. God forbid, but what if we suffer an act of grotesque political violence at some point in this process? Given inflamed passions accompanied by the availability of high-powered weaponry, that potential is sadly all too imaginable.

  10. What if No Labels nominates a compelling, bipartisan ticket that becomes a viral sensation? It is said that third-party efforts always collapse. Which is true … until one day it is not. The major increase in voters identifying as unaffiliated is but one indication of mass turbulence among the body politic and a system ready for a convulsion.

  11. What if foreign election interference makes 2016 and 2020 look like child’s play? If I were to rank my scenarios by likelihood, this one would be high on the list. Color me dubious that we have hardened our political and online infrastructure to ward off such mischief. Disinformation is itself a threat. But that could be the least of it? If Putin calculates that the only way out of his Ukrainian quagmire is via Trump’s return to power, there is no end to what he could unleash.

  12. The wildcards don’t end on Election Day. What if Trump, or a Trump-like Republican replacement, again falls short and again refuses to accept the outcome? Don’t rely on incompetence once more and disregard the possibility that attempts to overturn the election could be more sophisticated this time. Conversely, what if Democrats lose but some allied interests decide that two can play that game and become election challengers and deniers? Finally, what if Republicans again lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college and the White House? The math makes it plausible for that to happen for the third time in the last seven presidential elections. That would make for another severe strain on a deeply stressed constitutional order.

Those are a dozen possible plot twists. Readers can surely contribute a dozen more. If there is one truism about the election cycle ahead, it is to expect the unexpected.

Buckle up.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and The Gazette newspapers;t [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann.


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