When just enough voters in just the right places elected Donald Trump in 2016, they wanted someone to disturb Washington and its stale status quo so deaf to their prolonged pleas for change.
Some Republicans there have since fled into retirement or encountered election defeat, while others learned to bite their tongues over the unpredictable president’s violations of decorum and GOP orthodoxy.
What was not expected was how dramatically the leader of the Republican Party would change the Democratic Party. In many ways, it has forsaken traditional liberal tenets to become not so much a party in opposition to the country’s other major party.
It is now the party of opposition to one man, Donald Trump. He’s a man who spent most of his adult life as a Democrat and generous chunks of his enormous wealth helping the political campaigns of Democrats.
That includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her party’s highest-ranking officeholder. Now, these two septuagenarians face off in a staged political struggle that serves both of them.
To be sure, Democrats remain a motley collection of factions built around the often conflicting self-interests of varied minority sectors such as African Americans, government workers and union members.
Deep party fissures between the adult establishment and youthful progressives will likely grow more apparent during fractious primaries. Those contests could attract even more ambitious — and hopeless — candidates than the 17 ambitious — and hopeless — candidates who offered themselves to GOP voters last time.
Those crowded contests pretty much prohibit the emergence of one or two dominant Democrats duking it out for money, votes and media attention. The resulting pluralities could well produce a nominee as unexpected and unlikely as the one Republicans chose from their packed field in 2016.
But for now, Democrats are united in their disgust and visceral opposition to anything about the usurper who surprisingly snatched the rug of certain victory out from under the tired, wobbly political heir of President Barack Obama.
These days, outrage is in. Initially, early party primary efforts are really about donors and dollars, not votes. That’s why Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ignited her campaign preparations at an unlikely moment, New Year’s Eve — to give herself an entire quarter to raise money, possibly scaring off competitors.
Initially, these 2020 presidential wannabes will compete by demonstrating who is more intensely incensed at Trump. And, of course, through their promised packages of giveaways, which will never materialize but will make for delicious debate fodder and applause lines.
This is all a strange but notable tribute to the power of Trump, the black hole of American politics. In space, the gravitational force of black holes is so mighty they attract, draw in and capture everything from particles to even light.
Whether he’s appearing on a highly-rated reality TV program or producing a similar show from the Oval Office, Trump’s unpredictable tweets, maneuvers, misbehavior, preening and antics have captured Washington media and their rapt audiences.
His statements and moves are so weirdly captivating and plentiful, they not only draw in the D.C. media and set the agenda, but they also sometimes damage and distort the president’s own political goals.
That capability was a major reason behind Trump’s primary success. He sucked in so much media attention, his competitors were gasping for coverage — and money — and were left largely reacting to him, instead of making the case for their own candidacies. Watch for a rerun.
Any Democratic candidate will need to match or at least come close to Trump’s masterful manipulation of media, especially the social kind.
The best moment of any candidacy is announcement day or the ones just before when the skies are clear, anything seems possible and optimism cannot be undercut even by reality.
That’s the happy zone all Democratic candidates inhabit. Some 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump, including his stubbornly loyal but minority base of around 44 percent.
That means, however, that an equally stubborn majority of Americans continues to disapprove of him. Democrats see that majority as ripe to be won over by another personality. Forget policy specifics.
In the 95 weeks before voting, many things can happen, including foreign crises and terrorism, that prompt rallying around the president. The country could also develop fatigue from turmoil created by a man who clearly revels in it.
Whomever Democrats select will find a political media genuinely hostile to Trump and generally eager to believe in a challenger with an attractive narrative. That media even got away with casting Obama, a product of the Chicago machine, as a reformer back in 2008.
This crop of Democratic candidates will also find that voters expect appealing, credible alternative programs to Trump’s that go far beyond blind loathing of the incumbent. In 72 years of elections since World War II, challengers to incumbent presidents have won only three times, a pathetic 16 percent success rate.
The two most recent successful challengers were governors who relied heavily on a troubled economy. That’s something to watch closely.