Under the old rules of establishment politics that has dominated recent political history, by now the clear establishment favorite, Mitt Romney would certainly be preparing his run against President Hillary Clinton, the dominant Democratic establishment figure as late as October, 2007 before Obama wrested the nomination away from her.
What is remarkable about what happened to the establishment last night in South Carolina was not only the rebuke to Romney, but the emegence of Gingrich - who is so reviled by the current Republican establishment that many leading figures are actively campaigning against him and trashing his reputation in public. Sure, Gingrich was the leader of the Republican party when he engineered the overthrow of the entrenched Democratic House majority -- but he was never an establishment figure and was only tolerated for a short time before being thrown out, ultimately for the stable, traditional, Dennis Hastert.
Whether the Gingrich insurgency prevails or not, it adds to the evidence of schism in the Republican ranks that emerged in the 2010 primaries where defeats of establishment candidates cost the GOP control of the US Senate. The fraying of the Democratic establishment has not been as severe, perhaps tempered by the rally-around-the President effect, but, nonetheless, we have seen a backlash against Obama from his base that has caused him to become more populist as he gears up for reelection. Clearly, Obama is leading a very fragmented coalition.
What does this mean for our system once election season is over and governance begins again? The prospects are not good.
The establishment of both parties understands that a deal must be struck on the deficit, that our immigration system is broken, and that the tax code should be reformed. But these and many other problems are made more difficult to fix when the core party establishments lose power. We have seen this during the debt limit and payroll tax cut debates where Speaker Boehner could not develop a consensus within his caucus and strong, non-establishment forces within his party were able to flex their muscles and up-end bipartisan deals. We will likely see this among Democrats if serious entitlement reform gains momentum.
If even deeper ruptures emerge during this primary season, governance may become even more difficult, no matter who wins the presidency this year.