With no incumbent on the ballot, the 2016 election will present a stark choice between a Democratic Party moving to President Obama’s left and a Republican alternative that’s veered sharply rightward. Although the views of the American public have remained relatively stable over the past 60 years, the ideological polarization of Democratic and Republican politicians has increased steadily for decades. “The chasm between the two parties is the greatest it’s ever been,” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
What divides candidates in both parties isn’t just their solutions to policy problems; they disagree about what the problems are. In debate after debate, the most hotly contested issues differ almost entirely depending on which party is doing the talking. The Democrats focus on climate change, police brutality against black Americans, and the need to raise the minimum wage, whereas Republicans emphasize immigration restrictions, religious liberty, and their desire to unwind Obama’s major achievements, including the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Affordable Care Act.
Even within Democratic and Republican spheres, the discussion has shifted significantly. Consider gun control, an issue Democrats assiduously avoided for a decade, after party strategists concluded it cost Al Gore the 2000 election. No longer. “I’ve been told by some to quit talking about this, to quit shouting about this,” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton declared about her push for stricter gun laws at an Oct. 15 rally in San Antonio, after attacking her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, for his tepid support of gun control. “I will not be silenced. We will not be silenced. We must continue to speak out.”
In almost every area of domestic policy, Democrats and Republicans would point the country toward radically different futures. The centerpiece of Obama’s energy initiative, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, would restrict emissions from power plants. Republican-led states are challenging it in court. If it’s struck down, the next president will rewrite the rules. Every Democratic candidate shares Obama’s commitment to halting climate change. Most Republican hopefuls reject the science that explains rising global temperatures and have vowed to scrap controls on greenhouse gas emissions. “I will stop the EPA’s Clean Power Plan,” Marco Rubio said while introducing his energy policy on Sept. 2.
Or take health care. Any Democratic president will preserve the Affordable Care Act. “Whoever the Republican nominee is, you can bet that repeal of the ACA will be a part of the platform,” says Larry Levitt of the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies health care. “It’s Republicans who want to upend the status quo on health care, leaving the parties very far apart.” A full repeal may not be politically feasible, because the law covers 17 million people, and even some Republican governors have embraced the federally funded expansion of Medicaid, Obamacare’s main vehicle for extending care to the poor. Short of repeal, a hostile president might push to weaken insurance market regulations, cut subsidies for the working class, and cap Medicaid spending.
The widest gap between the parties may be how they would reshape the Supreme Court, which may have the final word over many of these policy questions. By next November, four of the nine justices will be 78 or older, including the court’s most frequent swing voter, Anthony Kennedy. Obama’s successor may have the chance to replace all four. If so, a Republican president could give the court a 7 to 2 conservative majority; a Democrat could create a 6 to 3 liberal advantage. “There’s the potential for a generational change in the direction of the court,” says Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “We may be looking at a two- or three-decade entrenchment of a liberal or conservative court.”
The inclusive, post-partisan vision that animated Obama’s candidacy in 2008 has long been dead. This, at least, is among the dwindling areas of bipartisan agreement. Asked at the Oct. 13 Democratic debate to name the enemy she’s proudest of, a beaming Clinton replied, “The Republicans.” No one can doubt the feeling is mutual.