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The Only Question Clinton and Sanders Need to Answer

How would they handle our divided government better than Obama has?

Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Every day this week, Hillary Clinton has put out a plan of action for some aspect of domestic policy. On Monday, she reiterated her Wall Street reform plan in The New York Times; on Tuesday, she unfurled a new manufacturing tax credit for regions with significant layoffs; on Wednesday, she proposed an “exit tax” on corporations that shift their headquarters overseas. 

It’s certainly worth locating where the Democratic front-runner stands on key economic and regulatory issues. But in a critical way, these white papers and proposals are beside the point. You can see that in Elizabeth Warren’s commentary on Clinton’s Wall Street reform op-ed, which everyone misinterpreted as an endorsement of the proposed regulations. “Secretary Clinton is right to fight back against Republicans trying to sneak Wall Street giveaways into the must-pass government funding bill,” Warren wrote on Facebook. Warren’s response has nothing to do with Clinton’s policy framework; it’s about how she would handle Republicans in Congress. And that, to be candid, is the only question that matters for Democratic nominees. It’s also one that they haven’t yet addressed to a satisfactory degree.

Republican success in the 2010 elections allowed them, in most cases, to draw congressional maps to their advantage. As a result it’s extremely likely that the next president, if he or she is a Democrat, will see control of Congress in the hands of the opposite party for at least an entire first term. That makes Democratic candidates’ pronouncements on taxes or health care or education or regulatory policy nice to know, but less vital than how they would manage divided government.

We can see how critical this question is through the example of the current Democrat in the White House. The Obama administration has staked out multiple strategies in the five years since Republicans regained at least one house of Congress. Initially, Obama tried active involvement, partnering with Republicans to try to get things he wanted. That backfired during the disastrous 2011 negotiations over the debt limit, which resulted in the destructive Budget Control Act, a huge win for the Republican vision of limited government. The deal generated trillions of dollars in spending cuts, and an artificial budget cap that endures to this day, even as Congress and the White House have attempted to limit the damage from sequestration.

Another tactic was to go around Congress, with executive actions on issues like immigration, climate change, and net neutrality. That wound up being the most politically popular route, motivating the president’s base and projecting an aura of productivity and competence. But to paraphrase an old saw about politics, you may not be interested in Congress, but Congress is interested in you. They still hold the power of the purse, and if you want the government funded, the road still runs through the Capitol.

The administration’s negotiating tactic more recently has been to not negotiate. This worked in two successive increases to the debt limit, which passed without any concessions. However, the 2014 “CRomnibus” budget battle revealed the hazards of leaving things to Congress. Thanks to a broken Democratic caucus, Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski almost unilaterally decided what policies would be included in the spending bill, producing a bad product with almost no White House input. It included dozens of conservative policy riders, from rolling back high-risk derivatives regulations to cutting pension benefits for current retirees to reducing nutrition standards in the Women, Infant and Children program, among many others.

The White House paid little attention to the CRomnibus until the very end, when the president had to make a decision on the pros and cons of the entire deal, instead of taking each component piece-by-piece. As a result, Obama signed the rider-filled CRomnibus, spinning it as a victory because of modest increases to a few budget items. President Obama even whipped for passage of the bill, despite all the riders.

The exact same situation is happening this year. Already, a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization with several deregulatory measures passed Congress and earned the president’s signature. Two more huge bills are out there. An omnibus spending deal contains literally hundreds of right-wing policy riders—gifts to private equity firms, oil companies, and swindling investment managers, to name but a few. And a proposed “tax extenders” package was at one point bigger than the 2009 stimulus, filled mostly with permanent tax breaks for corporations and affirming a double standard for fiscal policy, in which new spending must be “paid for” but tax cuts don’t. 

The White House has again not really engaged on these bills, other than to stress that Congress needs to pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed at a briefing on Monday that President Obama has yet to meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan since his appointment in October. “This is a process right now that rests with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill,” Earnest said.

With the president AWOL, the defense has fallen to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, empowered because Republicans likely need Democratic votes to pass a budget. Pelosi has rejected all Republican budget offers with poison-pill riders, and announced in a Dear Colleague letter that, “there is very little support for the Tax Extenders bill as written.” Speaker Ryan says he will present a stopgap spending bill to avoid a Friday government shutdown in the short term, while scaling back the super-sized tax extenders to something more typical.

But those initiatives may be only delayed, not dead, as conservatives try to shape the final deal. And the White House has done little negotiating on the bills in either direction, which could lead to a replay of last year, with a holiday bushel of presents for Republican friends.

Steering clear of an unpopular Congress is good for presidential approval ratings, but not so much for actual policy. And that’s what Clinton and Sanders must reckon with. A Democratic president inaugurated in 2017 will have to face an ideologically opposed political movement with the numbers to get many of its priorities through Congress. The Republicans have pursued an effective strategy of linking those priorities to must-pass bills, and daring the White House to stop them. The results have been decidedly mixed.

In her op-ed, Clinton said that Democrats “should do everything they can” to stop riders that would deregulate Wall Street. But that’s not a full answer. Would a Clinton administration actively engage in negotiations with a Republican Congress, setting out first principles and seeking the best possible deal? Would she adopt the “innocent bystander” approach of the late Obama administration, letting Congress work its will? Or is there some more nuanced way to mitigate the damage from the final product coming out of the House and Senate?

Ultimately, these will be among the most important decisions of a future Democratic president—more relevant than whether to support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, or whether to break up banks or extend the regulatory perimeter to non-bank institutions. We have no problem asking presidential candidates about how they will deal with adversaries in Russia or the Middle East, but we never get around to the question of dealing with the day-to-day adversaries in Congress. Without that, Democratic voters are flying blind in choosing the candidate best equipped for the presidency.