Can Hillary Clinton Succeed on the Hill Where Obama Didn’t?

Clinton and new VP pick Tim Kaine see chances to work across the aisle, but the Left is wary.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi looks around Well Fargo Arena during a sound check before the kickoff of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
July 25, 2016, 8:08 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA—Nancy Pelosi is being careful and diplomatic.

“I think they both have their own approach and both have been successful,” she says when asked to compare how a President Hillary Clinton might work with Congress compared to President Obama.

Pelosi clears her throat, noting that big stuff like Obamacare got done with its namesake in office (albeit when Democrats controlled both chambers), but then she allows that Clinton “is one of the best prepared people to go into that Oval Office in a generation,” with stronger credentials than Obama, George W. Bush, or even Clinton’s husband.

“So she understands the policy, the politics, and the American people. So I think that perspective that she has will enable her to work, in her way, very successfully with Congress,” Pelosi said.

She’s talking to a small group of reporters outside the California delegates breakfast at the opening day of the Democratic National Convention here, and the question is a break from several about the unruly scene in the ballroom that had just unfolded.

Delegates backing Bernie Sanders shouted over several speeches in the cavernous ballroom in the big downtown Marriott hotel, for example booing when Rep. Mike Honda touted Sen. Tim Kaine’s selection as vice presidential candidate. There were more boos for Clinton from pro-Bernie delegates on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center when the convention opened hours later.

Welcome to the collision between the Democrats’ present and the Democrats’ future that’s on display here.

The Sanders backers aren’t going away quietly, even though Clinton has clearly moved left during the campaign, and Clinton and the Democratic National Committee sought to show their progressive bona fides with an opening night that features speeches from Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But at the same time that they’re trying to project unity among the angry remains of the Sanders insurrection, Democrats must also begin looking forward to what can be achieved on Capitol Hill if Clinton bests Donald Trump in November and her political capital is at its peak.

It’s a politically delicate mission.

As Kaine himself acknowledged in a 60 Minutes interview with Clinton on Sunday, Democrats are unlikely to regain control of the House, but he predicted a Clinton White House could find common ground on some issues with a divided Congress (which assumes Democrats regain the Senate).

Democrats, in other words, must contemplate deals with the GOP, and they see Clinton as someone who can do it after Republicans have spent years waging war against Obama’s legislative goals.

“She has spent so much time over the last 25 years being in close contact with people in Congress,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told National Journal as he walked through the convention site here.

“She is somebody who has demonstrated that she actually will listen to people in both parties and I think she comes with a greater reservoir of support, because those myriad of contacts, than what President Obama brought,” Blumenauer said.

It’s an analysis that’s not all that different from one offered by a prominent Republican analyst, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. He notes that Clinton has more history with members of Congress than Obama did after his brief stint in the Senate.

“I think she is going to be in, probably, a better position than President Obama was, simply by virtue of the fact that she knows a lot of these folks, she has worked with them,” Steele, now an MSNBC contributor, said in an interview en route from the sweltering security perimeter into the convention hall.

Another common, though hotly disputed, criticism of Obama is that he was never quite willing to put in the long hours schmoozing with lawmakers to build a rapport and trust. (Blumenauer, in our short interview, hinted at difficulties that Obama faced, noting that small talk isn’t his “forte”).

A credible rejoinder: Capitol Hill Republicans have made thwarting Obama, not cooperating with him, their defining political posture, and one that had made major deals very infrequent since they took control of the House in the 2010 elections, and then the Senate in 2014.

But getting back to Steele, he’s not wide-eyed about the chances for cooperation, given the deep partisan feelings about Clinton. “Then again, that familiarity also could work against her, because they do know her, or at least they have perceptions of her that may not be helpful to her long-term,” he said.

Several Sanders supporters, in interviews here, said they’re nervous that Clinton will make concessions to Republicans that undercut progressives’ policy goals.

Years after some progressives breathed a sigh of relief when Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner didn’t reach a “grand bargain” that might go after entitlements, the specter of new bipartisan deals that the Left doesn’t want is a concern for some of the Sanders crowd.

“All the stuff that’s going to happen is the stuff that we don’t want to happen,” Ray Balaster, who identifies himself as a “super volunteer” for Sanders, tells National Journal shortly after Sanders addressed his supporters Monday afternoon. He says Republicans will fight Clinton on any progressive policy.

“If anything happens, it’s going to be what the Republicans and Clinton agree on, which is money issues, corporatism, more spying, that sort of thing,” he said.

Melissa Michelson, a Sanders delegate from California, worries about what kind of deals that Clinton might cut with congressional Republicans.

“Just the mere fact that she’s backed by corporations, and the Republicans are backing corporations as well, definitely I think there is a lot of potential there,” she said.

“The trust issue is a problem that I have with her, and what she’s going to do with Congress, I’m sure there is going to be issues there as well,” Michelson said. “I think there will be a lot of backroom deals, and we are not going to know the half of it.”

But Kaine, for his part, is offering a far less sinister sense of the possibilities.

“Some of the big things that we have to do: immigration reform, tax reform, mental-health reform, criminal-justice reform, they’re only going to get done. I think they’re only going to get done probably with a divided House scenario where each side’s got to give on something,” he said on 60 Minutes.

If some Sanders backers fear what kind of agreements Clinton might reach with Republicans, they might take comfort that two Republican Capitol Hill aides contacted Monday saw little or no chance to compromise.

“There is nothing in her agenda a GOP Congress would want to pass,” said one.

Adds another: “I’m not sure what on what policy priorities Clinton will be bipartisan,” and predicts Clinton would strike compromises with Republicans at most a “touch more” often than Obama. This aide points out that Clinton has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite prior support; embraces “fair-share rhetoric” on taxes; and would be a “stalwart” defender of Obamacare.

“National security? Maybe this is where she’ll be more hawkish, but I think of Clintonian foreign policy as more opportunistic than bipartisan. She’ll still push for a far-left labor policy, she will continue the slow march of the EPA to regulate energy in a way that picks winners and losers, and she’ll be fairly permissive on immigration,” this aide said.

Democrats have a good chance of retaking the Senate and gaining seats in the House, although taking control of the House would require a huge Clinton victory over Trump.

Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of California allows that it’s unclear whether Republicans will seek to thwart Clinton the way they did with Obama. But he also predicts that electoral losses would make Republicans more likely to work with Clinton than they have been with Obama. “They are going to lose seats, and there’s nothing like losing seats to make you a little humble,” he tells National Journal.

“I’ve known [Clinton] for 30 years, and I am convinced that she will have a very close relationship with Congress,” he said. Does that include Republicans?

“Absolutely.”

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