Should she win the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton will have to contend not just with a Republican opponent, but with two joyless and inescapable specters.
From today’s vantage point, Clinton looks likelier than anyone else in America to be elected the next president, but her candidacy carries fewer upsides and far greater downsides than any Republican primary contender will face. In defeat, she would endure not just the humiliation of losing a winnable race, but of giving way to Republican control over the entire government, and an onslaught of conservative policy. Her victory, by contrast, would be circumscribed by Republican control over the House and possibly the Senate as well.
These basic facts may explain the bluntest parts of her announcement speech, in which she depicted herself as a bulwark against GOP dominance. “We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, rather than every corporation’s right to buy elections. ... I’ll fight back against Republican efforts to disempower and disenfranchise young people, poor people, people with disabilities, and people of color.” At the very least, Clinton would be able to prevent Republicans from passing laws and placing more federal judges on the bench.
That part of Clinton’s speech would seem like implicit admission that her presidency won’t be terribly eventful, except she also ticked off a bunch of promises and goals that she couldn't accomplish without congressional consent: universal preschool and childcare, tax reform, paid sick leave, and on and on down the line. In most cases, these are policies that President Barack Obama supports, too, but they have languished in Congress because Republicans oppose them, and have no incentive to help Obama achieve them, when it is their goal to tear him down.
If Hillary Clinton is likely to inherit a Congress just as hostile to her presidency, why is she planning to build “a campaign that dreams too big” and in so doing “set up a presidency that disappoints the very people it once inspired?” This, according to Ezra Klein, is the trap Obama fell into, and one Clinton can only avoid if she has a “theory … lurking behind the policy speeches” of how she’ll get these ideas turned into laws.
Like Klein, The Atlantic’s David Frum believes that the key to her strategy will be political trench warfare. As in 2008, Clinton will have no time for sanguine, Obama-esque fantasies of bridging partisan divisions with inspirational leadership. The keys to success in her mind were and remain indefatigability, and a mastery of partisan bloodsport.
When Obama’s theory of change failed, though, he enjoyed an ideal, once-in-a-generation fallback: huge Democratic majorities in Congress. Clinton will not have those. Anyone tried in the partisan fires of the past decades will understandably look at Clinton’s strategy with a jaundiced eye. I, too, ultimately expect that she’ll encounter the same kind of massive Republican resistance Obama has endured.
But thanks to a constellation of favorable factors unlike any Obama faced, Clinton could eke a handful of progressive victories out of a brief interlude of Republican distraction.
1) It’s unlikely that the next president will enter office against the backdrop of as many crises as Obama inherited. These crises required Obama to expend tremendous political resources on unpopular emergency measures before he could get to work on his forward-looking agenda.
2) Obamacare is already the law. For decades, universal healthcare was the holy grail of Democratic politics, elusive precisely because reforming the health care system is impossible to do without incurring great expense and significant disruption, and thus without courting tremendous blowback. But it’s done now. Which means, absent an unexpected economic or foreign crisis, Hillary Clinton will be able to front load a new, simpler domestic policy agenda.
3) Clinton’s domestic policy agenda is extremely popular, and, unlike Obamacare, made up mostly of simple bargains. People pay their taxes and in return will reap the benefits of child care and preschool, and their children will enjoy the option of tuition-free community college. By fiat, the government can require employers to provide paid sick or family leave, but only if people force their members of Congress to vote for it. Against a weakened political opposition, policies like these will make great wedge issues. Which is of particular note because if Hillary Clinton wins…
4) The right will be in the throes of disconsolate panic. Conservative columnist Philip Klein somewhat hyperbolically suggests that “if Republicans can’t beat Hillary, they should disband the party.” Bill Kristol agrees, but stipulates that “if Republicans don’t win in 2016, GOP civil wars will be so intense there will be nothing left to disband.” Anybody who was skeptical of Obama’s 2012 argument that his reelection would “break the fever” of hysterical Republican opposition, and who watched Republicans disprove it, can be forgiven for doubting that they’ll be so disillusioned after 2016 that they’ll start voting for liberal policies.
But there is historical precedent for members of a badly defeated opposition party to cooperate with their partisan opposites, or to at least stand aside. Like boll weevil Democrats in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a minority of frustrated, undogmatic Republicans could—perhaps temporarily—align with Clinton on a subset of issues. The comparison is imperfect, because boll weevils were part of a dying breed of conservative Democrats, some of whom ultimately became Republicans. Today’s Republican Party has no comparable liberal faction. But the issues Clinton will champion won’t be as contentious or far-reaching as huge tax cuts or universal health care. And with respect to complex issues like immigration and climate mitigation, Clinton will be inheriting entrenched administrative policies that already make significant inroads toward liberal goals. The bargain on offer would allow Republicans to reshape the policies in conservative ways, in exchange for codifying them. This is a more attractive request than asking Congress for something entirely new, which Obama did when he sought cap-and-trade legislation and immigration reform unsuccessfully.
Republicans may regroup quickly and deny Clinton any legislative accomplishments, the way they’ve denied them to Obama. Little would surprise me less. But her political baseline will be meaningfully different from the one Obama built his administration on, and in the dusty aftermath of their third straight presidential election defeat they might let a couple meaningful reforms sneak by.