How Hillary Clinton Could End Washington's Gridlock

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton campaigns with former Vice President Al Gore in Florida. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton campaigns with former Vice President Al Gore in Florida. mpi04/MediaPunch/IPX

For those only pay­ing at­ten­tion to the nasty pres­id­en­tial race, it’s easy to con­clude the cam­paign won’t fore­shad­ow an era of good feel­ings in Wash­ing­ton. But the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that pre­sumes grid­lock is the new nor­mal is wrong. If Hil­lary Clin­ton wins the pres­id­ency and faces a closely di­vided Sen­ate and GOP-con­trolled House—the most likely out­come—it would be in every­one’s polit­ic­al in­terest to co­oper­ate and com­prom­ise in the pres­id­ent’s cru­cial first year.

Giv­en her prag­mat­ic in­stincts and pro­duct­ive work­ing re­la­tion­ships with many top Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, Clin­ton would have a rare op­por­tun­ity to gov­ern from the cen­ter fol­low­ing a gen­er­al-elec­tion cam­paign in which she’s been reach­ing out to mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. Un­like Pres­id­ent Obama, who in­her­ited a Sen­ate su­per­ma­jor­ity in 2009 and faced a once-in-a-life­time win­dow to pass through a wave of lib­er­al le­gis­la­tion, Clin­ton would need to build up her polit­ic­al cap­it­al and work with an op­pos­i­tion party that would be try­ing to pick up the pieces in the af­ter­math of Don­ald Trump.

Just con­sider: For the first time since 2008, an in­sur­gent wave of primar­ies against mod­er­ate mem­bers of Con­gress nev­er tran­spired. Clin­ton has warm re­la­tion­ships with many Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, and has pledged to im­prove re­la­tion­ships with Con­gress on the cam­paign trail. To main­tain power, Clin­ton would need to cater to the in­terests of her party’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers in Con­gress. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats even demon­strated a rare bit of bi­par­tis­an­ship to pass a short-term spend­ing bill cov­er­ing fund­ing for the Zika vir­us and the Flint wa­ter crisis, avert­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Here’s why a Clin­ton pres­id­ency could lead to an era of good feel­ings in Wash­ing­ton:

1. This year’s con­gres­sion­al primar­ies sug­gest the in­flu­ence of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s un­com­prom­ising con­ser­vat­ive wing is wan­ing. It’s the para­dox of this elec­tion: In the year when Trump en­gin­eered a hos­tile takeover of the GOP, es­tab­lish­ment-minded Re­pub­lic­ans cruised to vic­tory in their own primar­ies. House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, who re­ceived a high-pro­file chal­lenge from a Trump aco­lyte, won with a whop­ping 84 per­cent of the vote. Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, whose ap­prov­al with the base is low back home, still won by a 12-point mar­gin against a tea-party-aligned op­pon­ent. Busi­ness-friendly groups spent money to de­feat Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, a key lead­er in the House Free­dom Caucus, help­ing elect a mod­er­ate who sup­por­ted spend­ing to help his dis­trict’s ag­ri­cul­tur­al in­terests. The only con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to lose primar­ies were ones chal­lenged from the cen­ter or ones threatened by re­dis­trict­ing. Very few can­did­ates tried to run on Trump’s coat­tails, even when he ap­peared to be in a com­pet­it­ive pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

For all the talk that Trump could lead the party in­to ru­in, it’s more likely that he co-op­ted the dis­rupt­ive en­ergy of the tea-party move­ment and will later leave it for dead. He’s win­ning over the same voters who railed against Pres­id­ent Obama’s gov­ern­ment spend­ing even though he op­poses re­form­ing en­ti­tle­ments. The party’s con­ser­vat­ive fac­tions will have a hard time call­ing for pure prin­ciple after em­bra­cing a nom­in­ee who is as RINO as they come. Mean­while, the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment’s icon, Ted Cruz, is now a wounded politi­cian without a nat­ur­al home, hated by the es­tab­lish­ment and mis­trus­ted by many of his old fans for wait­ing so long to en­dorse Trump. He was pres­sured to do so out of fear he could face his own primary from a more-mod­er­ate chal­lenger, Rep. Mi­chael Mc­Caul.

So if Clin­ton wins, she’ll find a chastened, more prag­mat­ic op­pos­i­tion with a bit less fear of its right flank than be­fore. If she makes a ser­i­ous at­tempt to win back some blue-col­lar whites with an agenda de­signed to pro­mote their eco­nom­ic in­terests (fund­ing a wave of tech­nic­al schools, as an ex­ample), she could find some will­ing part­ners across the aisle des­per­ately look­ing for a way to en­gage Trump’s con­stitu­ency without ca­ter­ing to its bigotry.

2. If Clin­ton wants to hold the Sen­ate in 2018, she’ll need to fo­cus on the in­terests of red-state Demo­crats. For all the talk that Clin­ton will be held host­age to the Demo­crats’ left-wing, Eliza­beth War­ren-led fac­tion, the polit­ic­al real­ity is that she’ll lose the Sen­ate if she veers too far to the left and doesn’t pro­mote an agenda ac­cept­able to red-state voters in In­di­ana, Mis­souri, Montana, and West Vir­gin­ia. In 2018, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Claire Mc­Caskill, Jon Test­er, Joe Manchin, and Joe Don­nelly will be up for reelec­tion in states that Trump will likely carry by com­fort­able mar­gins. All will face very chal­len­ging reelec­tions, and will need a polit­ic­ally healthy Clin­ton to have a chance at win­ning.

Un­like Obama, who moved the coun­try left­ward at the ex­pense of his al­lies in Con­gress, Clin­ton’s re­cord sug­gests she will be more eager to build re­la­tion­ships in Con­gress and re­build the bench of the Demo­crat­ic Party. That starts with the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

3. Con­trol of the Sen­ate could hang in the bal­ance in Clin­ton’s first year. If Clin­ton wins the pres­id­ency and the Sen­ate is di­vided 50-50—a very pos­sible out­come—Re­pub­lic­ans would have an early chance to de­liv­er a blow to Demo­crats thanks to a spe­cial elec­tion for Tim Kaine’s Sen­ate seat. In all like­li­hood, the race would be held in Novem­ber 2017, giv­ing Clin­ton an early battle­ground-state ref­er­en­dum of her first year in of­fice. In an evenly di­vided Sen­ate, the race would be aw­fully con­sequen­tial and re­ceive na­tion­al at­ten­tion.

Vir­gin­ia has a long track re­cord (with one not­able ex­cep­tion, in 2013) of vot­ing for the out party in its statewide elec­tions held the year after the pres­id­en­tial race. To re­verse this tend­ency, Clin­ton will need to show she’s cap­able of end­ing the grid­lock that has defined Wash­ing­ton. And as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Terry McAul­iffe can at­test, play­ing to Bernie Sanders’s left-wing base isn’t the tick­et to win­ning the af­flu­ent swing voters in ex­urb­an Wash­ing­ton who are cru­cial to car­ry­ing the Old Domin­ion.

4. In­com­ing Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer is a (lib­er­al) prag­mat­ist, while out­go­ing Lead­er Harry Re­id is a bomb-throw­er. Schu­mer is no pushover, but he un­der­stands that Demo­crats won’t hold con­trol of the Sen­ate if they rely only on the fickle Obama co­ali­tion of non­whites and mil­len­ni­als. (In midterms, that for­mula has been a dis­aster.) As head of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee in 2006, Schu­mer spe­cific­ally re­cruited Demo­crats in red states who didn’t all hold the same views as the na­tion­al party. He pub­licly broke with the Obama White House on the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal, earn­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s wrath. He led sup­port for the 9/11 law­suit bill, put­ting its polit­ic­al pop­ular­ity ahead of ser­i­ous ob­jec­tions from the dip­lo­mat­ic com­munity and the White House. (Re­id was the lone Sen­ate vote in fa­vor of up­hold­ing Obama’s veto.)

Re­id, by con­trast, has loy­ally done the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bid­ding even when it cost him his gavel as ma­jor­ity lead­er after the 2014 midterms. His steady stream of per­son­al in­sults against Re­pub­lic­ans has played a role in the pois­on­ous re­la­tion­ship between the two parties in the up­per cham­ber. He fash­ions him­self as a savvy tac­ti­cian, but his vaunted polit­ic­al ma­chine is strug­gling to put away Trump and GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate Joe Heck in his home state.

5. Obama is an ideo­logue, while Clin­ton cares more about the polit­ic­al bot­tom line. In the past when I’ve writ­ten that Obama’s ideo­lo­gic­al blinders and res­ist­ance to com­prom­ise have played a key role in Wash­ing­ton grid­lock, it re­li­ably gen­er­ates heated blow­back from the pres­id­ent’s sup­port­ers.

A Clin­ton pres­id­ency would of­fer an im­port­ant test of the thes­is: Which side is more re­spons­ible for the grid­lock? Many polit­ic­al in­cent­ives would be in place for co­oper­a­tion. Clin­ton wouldn’t be in strong polit­ic­al po­s­i­tion to of­fer a laun­dry list of lib­er­al policies in her first year. Re­pub­lic­ans badly need to show that they’re cap­able of gov­ern­ing. If Re­pub­lic­ans re­fuse to com­prom­ise no mat­ter the cir­cum­stances, it would prove that they’re bey­ond sav­ing. But don’t be sur­prised if we enter a sur­pris­ing new era of co­oper­a­tion with new lead­ers in charge come 2017.

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