How Hillary Clinton Could End Washington’s Gridlock

If she’s elected president and follows a more moderate path than President Obama, it would strengthen her party and offer the GOP a lifeline from Trump.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Oct. 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

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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