The Agony of the Campaign Won't End on Election Day

After Election Day, the partisan battle won't be over, it'll just be getting started.
29 October 2016, 12:00am
Hillary Clinton at a rally in Philadelphia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The last remaining outcrop of bipartisan consensus is that we all can't wait for this election to be over. No more slogans, no more rallies, no more flamewars, no more obsessing over the coming vote like it's the longest, more boring sporting contest in the world. The people who study this topic—by which I mean anyone who googles "election 2016" and has the attention span to then read an entire article—have a pretty good guess about what's going to happen: Hillary Clinton will beat Donald Trump for the presidency, the Republicans will maintain control of the House, and whichever way the Senate goes, neither party will be able to gather the filibuster-proof 60 seats that's required to pass any piece of truly difficult legislation.

That's to say that Clinton will be inheriting a presidency that looks a lot like Barack Obama's, meaning she'll have to deal with an extremely hostile and legislatively powerful opposition party. In other words, look forward to more gridlock, more partisanship, and more politicians obviously looking forward to the 2018 and 2020 elections. The end of this election won't be the end of anything. It won't be the beginning of anything either—it's just another chunk of agonizing middle.

Let's assume nothing shocking happens before Election Day, like Clinton getting put in cuffs by the FBI, which is still looking into her emails. Clinton will come in with a long list of domestic policies she'll want to implement: her college tuition plan, a push for more infrastructure planning, some kind of gun control, a way to fix Obamacare's problems, an effort to fight climate change, a higher minimum wage, and immigration reform. How is she going to do any of that?

To start with the most obvious obstacle, the House of Representatives will block pretty much anything a President Clinton would propose. House Republicans are already preparing to investigate her for pretty much anything they can, continuing the long inquiries into Benghazi and her private email server. Maybe they'll get lucky and find something they can impeach her with, but more likely, it will be just a way for Republicans to force Clinton to deal with as many micro-scandals as possible while producing a stream of grist for the right-wing media mills and signaling to their constituents that they're good conservatives working to bring down Crooked Hillary.

For years, the GOP has been moving further and further to the right, and any Republican member of Congress has to worry about a primary fight if they stray too close to compromising with a hated Democratic president. Maybe some prominent Republicans will realize after Trump that they need to tone it down, but nahhhhhhhhhh. The second-place finisher in the Republican presidential primary was Texas senator Ted Cruz, a hardcore conservative who has made a career out of rejecting compromise and denouncing accommodation. It's clear that the GOP base really doesn't want politicians who can point to a record of deal-making and legislative accomplishment.

Trumpism will continue to be a force after the election. In the House, the far-right "Freedom Caucus" may make it more difficult for Paul Ryan, a Republican who has criticized Trump, to get reelected Speaker. Maybe more important, Trump's campaign has collected the information and support of millions of angry white people that could provide the ammunition for a continued insurgency against the remaining moderating impulses in the GOP. Trump's team, Bloomberg Businessweek wrote in a profile of the campaign, "may emerge as a new media enterprise, an outsider political movement, or perhaps some combination of the two: an American UK Independence Party (UKIP) that will wage war on the Republican Party—or, rather, intensify the war that Trump and [campaign chairman and Breitbart executive Steve] Bannon have already begun." That war is going to make it even harder to pass legislation than it otherwise would be.

On paper, the Senate seems like more fertile ground for Clinton. The former New York senator built relationships with her Republican colleagues during her tenure there, and Congress's upper chamber has been generally more open to compromises—there's already talk of resurrecting the "Gang of Eight" bipartisan immigration reform measure passed in the Senate and killed by the House.

But while some Senate Republicans have said nice things about Clinton, the same incentives against passing bills still exist: Any major piece of legislation will be an accomplishment Clinton will be able to point to in her (earmuffs, children) 2020 reelection campaign. And anything that gets through the Senate will of course have to go down to the much unfriendlier confines of the House.

Clinton will likely do what her predecessors have done and rely on the president's best friend, executive orders. But even there, she'll face obstacles in the form of lawsuits from conservatives—one such suit against an Obama administration action to grant deportation relief wound up going to the Supreme Court, who split on the issue 4–4, effectively blocking the order thanks to a lower court decision.

That brings us to the third branch of government. Having an eight-member Supreme Court obviously leaves open the possibility of a lot more deadlocks. If the Democrats take over the Senate, they would be able to confirm Clinton's Supreme Court nominees, at least in theory. In practice, it's complicated—Republicans could block nomination votes with a filibuster, but if Democrats had a Senate majority, they could use the "nuclear option" to overrule that filibuster with 51 votes. That would further erode the idea that Supreme Court appointments are somehow above party politics, but actually just kidding, that idea is dead and buried already.

Arizona senator John McCain, once known as a relative moderate who would work across the aisle, suggested this month that the GOP would "be united" against any of Clinton's Supreme Court nominees, before his spokesperson slightly walked that statement back. Stopping any and all nominations during Clinton's term would mean leaving the Court short at least one justice, which is constitutionally allowed but unprecedented—though many on the right, most prominently Ted Cruz, seem fine with that.

So that's what we have to look forward to: the continuation of a deadlocked Congress, a heated battle over the Supreme Court, an attempt from conservatives to destabilize the Clinton administration, the ongoing drift of the Republican Party to the hard right, and everyone—from the president on down—looking ahead to the next election. Good luck everyone.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.