By Stephen Collinson, CNN
It’s never too early to think about the next election.
The outrageous, precedent-defying 2016 presidential race still has six months to go, and multiple wild twists and turns to negotiate, before it produces the 45th president.
But for the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, former candidates like Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and members of the yet-to-emerge next generation of Democratic Party leaders, it’s time to look forward to a post-Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton world. The political calculations they make now could help or haunt them in years to come.
Ryan, Cruz and Rubio all plunged back into the limelight this week: Ryan had a high-stakes summit with Trump, Rubio sat down with CNN’s Jake Tapper for his first national television interview since dropping out, and Cruz returned to the Hill, gaggled with reporters and exchanged semi-jocular insults with Sen. John McCain.
Presidential politics has always been a long game — sometimes rewarding those like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who rebounded from unsuccessful presidential campaigns to win the White House.
But more so than normal, the volatile 2016 campaign poses treacherous questions for politicians who all seem to be waiting to see where the shifting political sands settle.
Ryan’s reset with Trump
Ryan’s peace summit with Trump this week, as GOP leaders try to patch over gaping philosophical differences before the general election, was a case in point.
“I don’t want us to have a fake unification process here,” Ryan said after emerging from the meeting with Trump.
“I want to make sure that we really, truly understand each other and that we are committed to the conservative principles that make the Republican Party, that built this country,” he added.
The flamboyant billionaire’s rise poses a direct threat to Ryan’s life’s work: the placing of conservative fiscal and social ideology at the center of U.S. government while broadening the party’s reach to more diverse economic, ethnic and cultural audiences needed to assure the GOP’s viability in an increasingly diverse nation.
Trump’s refusal to consider changes to entitlements, hard line on immigration and the raucous, often vulgar, tone of his campaign also fly in the face of Ryan’s orthodox conservative philosophy and hopes of broadening the GOP’s appeal.
And though serving as speaker is not generally a path to the presidency, most of Washington believes that Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, still holds out hope of his own future White House run, despite his frequent protestations of rumors he would seek the office this year.
So as he forges ties with Trump, Ryan faces multiple political challenges.
On the one hand, a Trump victory would bring some Republican goals within reach — such as overturning the Affordable Care Act — with a president willing to sign legislation wiping out Obama’s legacy.
Ryan and members of his restive Republican coalition, especially those who still face primary races, also can ill afford to alienate the legions of Trump supporters that have transformed politics back home in their own states.
But should Trump lose in November, a decision to stand with the party nominee now could leave them tainted by association with him in future — especially if Trump does not moderate rhetoric that has alarmed crucial voting demographics like women and Hispanic voters.
Cruz’s ‘eternal’ principles
Two other men seen as part of the GOP’s future, possibly in 2020 or beyond, also face general election choices.
Cruz and Rubio both re-emerged in recent days after licking their wounds during their election defeat by Trump. And it seemed the flame of presidential ambition was still smoldering.
“It is great to be back in the welcome embrace of Washington,” Cruz quipped at a chaotic news conference. It was one of a number of events that suggested his failed presidential bid had enhanced rather than diminished his political stature — despite the antipathy the GOP establishment still feels for him.
“This battle is about a lot more than one election cycle or one candidate, it is about principles that are eternal,” Cruz said, signaling that he has no intention to step back from front-line politics.
Cruz has held back from endorsing Trump — a move that inevitably focuses attention on his future political intentions — and in his mid-forties, Cruz is already a potential top-tier candidate for the next contested GOP primary race, be it in 2020 or 2024. Cruz did, however, announce he will seek re-election to his Texas Senate seat in 2018.
Rubio’s Senate term ending
Rubio’s future is less certain — since he will not have an elected platform after January because he decided not to run for re-election.
But he choreographed his re-entry into Washington politics carefully nonetheless, highlighting his interest in foreign policy after returning from a trip to Iraq, Turkey and Qatar with a major foreign policy speech in Washington and a CNN interview.
Rubio also delivered an implicit rebuke to Trump, steering questioning to former Secretary of State James Baker in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to secure a subtle condemnation of the billionaire’s comment that South Korea and Japan should consider getting nuclear weapons.
“The more countries that acquire nuclear weapons the more instability there is going to be in the world, in my opinion,” said Baker.
Any relaunch of Rubio’s political career will likely be anchored in his interest in national security issues — so a sign that he is continuing to deepen his expertise is likely to be viewed as politically significant.
As is his lukewarm endorsement of Trump in his CNN interview, in which he pledged to support the Republican nominee — although Rubio wouldn’t say Trump’s name — and suggested he wouldn’t openly campaign for him in the fall, either.
Conservative holdouts against Trump are also factoring in the 2020 election, preferring to concentrate on reasserting the conservative movement’s hold on the party for future presidential elections, rather than the current one.
David Bahnsen, an investment manager and political activist, penned an online column refuting the idea that Trump is the “lesser of two evils” compared to Hillary Clinton.
Bahnsen counsels conservatives to start preparing to help Republicans regroup from what he believes is a likely loss in November, and to frame an aspirational Reaganite message that will help make her a one-term president.
“The next president is going to inherit a recession that this president has largely been able to avoid due to the timings of things. Regardless of the party politics, out of a recession you are faced with a political opportunity to redirect the message,” Bahnsen told CNN.
In his article, which is making the rounds with social conservatives, Bahnsen added: “We simply must prepare ourselves for the fight ahead, which is in diminishing the power of Hillary Clinton by preserving divided government, and then in replacing Hillary in 2020 with a pro-growth candidate of character and seriousness.”
The Democrats’ bench
Democrats don’t have the luxury yet of moving onto November’s election, given that Bernie Sanders is adamant that he will pursue his campaign at least until the end of primary season. And if Clinton were to win in November, it would be another eight years before party hopefuls get the chance to run for the White House.
Yet her choice of vice presidential nominee could elevate a fresh face for the future.
And given the fact that Sanders is 74 years old already, a future vacancy may be looming for an heir who could take up his “political revolution” that has galvanized the grassroots of the party — however November’s election turns out.
While Republicans had a sufficiently deep bench that 17 people ran for president this year, Democrats do not appear to have as much talent ready for the big leagues — one of the curiosities of the era of President Barack Obama, who ignited rare passion in young voters and political activists when he ran for president in 2008. In fact, if Clinton does win the presidency, the current commander in chief will be succeeded by a Democrat who is older than he is.
Such was Clinton’s perceived strength this year that potential big-time rivals like progressive senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker elected not to run. Vice President Joe Biden meanwhile, beset by personal tragedy after the death of his son Beau, also skipped the race.
Unlike the Republicans, who fielded Rubio and Cruz, the Democrats lack tested 40-something candidates with a long future ahead of them, making the party’s potential roster of presidential candidates for 2020 or 2024 difficult to identify.
Which may be one reason why not everyone was laughing when rapper Kanye West said he was mulling a 2020 presidential bid — after all, running as a celebrity outsider who disdains Washington worked for Trump.
The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2016 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.