America After Both Trump and Clinton

August 24, 2016
November 25, 2020
US Politics

At this point in time, it appears overwhelmingly likely that Hillary Clinton will be inaugurated as President on January 20th, 2017. Not only has Donald Trump fallen behind in the polls, but his campaign apparatus appears to range from poor to nonexistent, with a 12 year old reportedly running his campaign in a major Colorado swing county. The result has been to place the media in a quandary regarding coverage. In every election since 1996, the outcome has been uncertain in August if not even later, and therefore a focus on the "horse race" has become for all practical campaign coverage itself. But with no horse race, we have seen an acceleration in the normal cycle, with the speculation about what the long-term future holds for the Republican party after a defeat this fall.

This sort of speculation should surprise no one. The loss of a Presidential election has for a longtime provoked discussion about whether a given party is "doomed" or what is needed to turn its political fortunes around. Rarely is the obvious answer, "time and chance" sufficient to satisfy critics and commentators who want a far wider, and more interesting, self-criticism. As a result, Democrats in 2005 were asked whether America was now a "Right Nation" subject to permanent Republican rule, while Republicans have been subjected to the same. Previously ignored, even midterm results have been brought into the discussion. Numerous works appeared in 1995 suggesting that Republican gains in 1994 signified the end of the Clinton Presidency. American liberalism and big government were "discredited" after 2010, while GOP wins in 2014 were used to justify shelving any suggestions that the party needed to do anything particularly innovative or heretical to win in 2016.

Normally these discussions take place after a defeat. Senior Democrats or Republicans, on the look-out for White House patronage, are unlikely to burn bridges they may need later in the event their predictions turn out wrong. By contrast, a defeated candidate has no patronage to give, while any attacks can be used as proxies to go after rivals for influence over future nominees. 2016 is unique in the sense that large parts of the Republican elite never got on-board with Trump, which combined with the fact that Trump appears to be far behind in any case, suggests that they have little to lose. As a consequence, we are having a discussion about the future of the Republican party right now.

It would take another piece of extensive length to outline the different sides in this debate. For simplicity sake, it is worth noting that they are not merely conservative or moderate. Those who believe that the whole Trump exercise has been nothing but a disaster, the so-called "moderate" establishment in most coverage, seek a return to the Bush/Romney era where the GOP stood for low taxes, aggressive interventionism abroad, free trade, albeit with concessions on immigration and gay rights which mistakenly have allowed them to hijack a moderate tag they do not deserve. On Foriegn Policy, on fiscal issues where their policies are mutually exclusive and their accounting incoherent, and on regulatory matters, they are far to the right of their internal foes.

Opposing them are those who believe that while Trump himself may have been a mistake, not everything he said or did has been bad, and that there criticisms he has made that the party should consider. This group stretches from those with links to the alternative right who want a "Trumpism without Trump" to those who merely feel that Trump's victories in the primary revealed the intellectual and political bankruptcy of traditional Republican policy positions. When Trump challenged the neoconservative consensus by outright stating that Iraq was a mistake, or wondering why the US is so picky about who it works with to fight ISIS, they felt that Trump was verbalizing concerns and questions that millions of Republicans from voters to congressional staffers to elected officials themselves have had over the last decade, but were intimidated from publicizing due to the climate of ideological Stalinism within the party. One could express disagreement regarding the party's stand on gay rights or immigration reform, but never on economic or foreign policy issues. In the case of economics, Republican candidates were forced to campaign on, and their staffers forced to implement, often absurd economic policies that made a mockery of any position of fiscal responsibility by running up huge deficits, while reinforcing the impression in taxes and trade that Republicans were the servants of the rich. That this group is willing to consider direct appeals on nationalist ground allows them to be branded the "extremists" in this internal debate, despite their vastly more centrist views on almost every issue.

These represent real and important differences not just over tactics, but over what the role of the Republican party is within a 21st century America. But much as with the focus on the horse race, it is the existence of these divisions, rather than their substance, which elicits attention. Hence the media has focused heavily on the concerns of the first group, especially regarding immigration reform, by stressing Trump's lack of support among non-whites, and by confusing those who have held aloof from Trump over resentment regarding patronage with acting on principle, has served to create a narrative in which the Republican party either has to transform itself in terms of its appeal to Hispanics or face obliteration.

It would be unwise to dismiss  that claim entirely. The Republican party would certainly be more successful electorally if it won more votes, and one way of winning votes would be having greater appeal to Hispanic voters. But as with the post-2004 focus on how Democrats needed to win over conservative rural voters, the analysis confuses cause and effect. Democrats did in fact make spectacular gains in Appalachia and among downscale whites in 2006. They won special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi and swept the board in the Midwest. But it is unclear if they did so because of a specific outreach program, or merely because the war in Iraq was unpopular, and those areas have always strong hardest against the incumbent party. Much can be made of the fact that those were precisely the places where Democrats did worst in 2010 and 2014, a correlation many Democrats have dismissed as a product of racism, but they also showed a much greater swing to Michael Dukakis in 1988. In fact, the evidence is that the major requirement for success in the election after a defeat is simply to wait two years.

This is worth considering, because Clinton will likely enter office in January on the back of a substantial victory which may(narrowly) deliver a Democratic senate majority. This will lead to declarations of doom for the Republican party and modern conservatism, especially when combined with the fact that Clinton will almost certainly move to immediately fill the seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, creating a de facto liberal majority for the first time in more than 30 years. With Trump having proven that an appeal to the "white vote" can never be viable, commentators will foolishly wonder where a Republican party fits into this new America.

The answer will be provided at least partially by what happens to the non-judicial part of Clinton's agenda if Republicans hold the house, and if not, by the voters two years later in November of 2018. Even absent the Republican "midterm edge" provided by demographics with higher voter turnout regularity, the prospects for Democrats would be ominous. In the Senate they will be defending 25 seats in contrast to the Republican party's 8. Of those 8, only one is in a state Obama won, Dean Heller of Nevada, and recent Democratic midterm performances in the state have been nothing short of catastrophic, with the Democrats losing every statewide office and both houses of the legislature in 2014. By contrast, Democrats hold 5 seats in states Mitt Romney won, and 9 in states George W. Bush carried in 2004.

At the gubernatorial level, matters are even more high-stakes. Redistricting is due in 2021, and Democrats have paid dearly for their poor performances in 2010, which cost them seats at the table in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, complete control in New York. In fact, maps are so bad that it is unclear if Democrats could win a majority even on a 5% national victory in the popular vote. But the places Democrats need to gain or hold onto in 2018 tend to be clustered in the areas which will be ground zero for any reaction against a Clinton Presidency. Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are not part of the new America which is bringing Hillary Clinton to the Presidency, but rather representatives of the old abandoned one which rallied to Trump. Clinton will likely win all of them this year, but it is unclear how she can avoid a backlash thereafter. The types of policies she can deliver on, cosmetic nods to trans issues, trade deals, and military intervention abroad are deeply unpopular, while the ability to address the economic problems in these areas will be beyond her. The result is likely to be the worst of both worlds, with the locals not just seeing their own issues being ignored, but the concerns of others prioritized. A situation in which Republicans retain control of those key state governments would setup a world in which, absent major SCOTUS intervention, Republicans would be likely to control the US house throughout the 2020s.

Alone this would not be so different to the Obama years. After-all, Obama will spend six of them with a GOP House, and two with a GOP Senate. But they will raise the stakes for 2020. Because the odds against any party winning the Presidency four times are high, likely to be longer if they won the last time off the back of a vote against the opposing candidate.then the prospect before the electorate in 2020 will not be between Democratic rule and mere change, but between total Republican predominance and divided government. In order to actually govern, Democrats need not just to win the Senate and House this year, but to hold them through 2020. By contrast, all Republicans have to do is to win the Presidency in 2020, and they will find themselves in complete control of the government. If the Republican candidate for President is winning in 2020, it is hard to imagine the GOP failing to win the House as well given the favorable lines, much less lose the senate. That means that a new Republican President would find themselves with complete control of the elected branches.

Of course there would be limitations on such power. For one thing, there would likely be a liberal majority on the supreme court. But the very presence of a Supreme Court dedicated to preventing them from governing would likely push a Republican White House in the direction of confrontation. Unable to win in the courts as they stand, it would be tempting to reorganize them by redrawing circuits - a split of the 9th Circuit is long overdue - or expanding them. All that would be needed would be majorities in both houses of congress, and Republican discipline has so far impressed.

Such a Republican predominance would be remarkably insulated from electoral backlash. Assuming a good midterm in 2018, Republicans likely would have the benefit of an extremely favorable map for the House, while the Senate class up in 2022 gives Democrats almost no chance for gains even in a wave, at least if they take the Senate this year. While it currently includes 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats, a Democratic gain of six this year, required for a majority, would leave Democrats with a 19-17 edge shorn of low-hanging fruit.18 out of 33 seats went for Mitt Romney in 2012, while George W. Bush carried 23 in 2004. If Republicans win 8-9 seats in 2018. it is hard to see how even in a landslide Democrats would take the senate.

For all the talk of doom, therefore, there is a real chance that the Republican party will find itself in 2021 in the exact same sort of position that Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary have found themselves. Carried by a general desire for change into a position in which they have sole power in the state. The irony of this is that many of the criticisms of the Republican party being out of ideas and out of sync with the modern world are true. But they were also true of Fidesz and Law and Justice. The result is not likely to be an inability to win any elections, the pendulum will make sure of that, but rather much more authoritarian behavior in power. Law and Justice and Fidesz are not pursuing authoritarian policies because they have a clear ideological agenda but rather because they lack one. Without any realistic program for government, they have instead fallen back on the one issue that they are united on, namely preserving their own political power. A Republican party that stumbles into office by accident in 2020 is likely to remain divided on Foriegn Policy. on Economic matters, on same-sex marriage. What it will be united on is opposition to liberal courts, and a desire to reverse the "lawless" executive actions of the Obama administration. That the truth of many of the "demographic" arguments is evident will act not to moderate but rather to spur on those who feel there is no time to lose. The behavior of Republicans after they took over the state of North Carolina in 2010 is instructive. A "revolution" was carried out as districts were gerrymandered right down to local school boards, the state university system was reorganized, and an effort was made to change judicial selection.

It is of course possible that Hillary Clinton easily wins reelection in 2020. It is more than likely that if a Republican does win, it will because they are at least personally a moderate like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. But it is hard to see how any future Republican administration governs moderately. For all the talk about Trump destroying the Republican party, it is still far better positioned to enforce its program than the Democrats. Democrats need a series of good election results. Republicans, by contrast, only need to win the Presidency once. Even the Whigs managed to do that twice. As such, Democratic gloating about decades of rule is absurdly premature.

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