It’s become just about all anybody can say: “I can’t wait for this election to be over.” It also is very likely to become a textbook case of: “be careful what you wish for.” If you think this contest has demonstrated fault lines in our political system, I have news for you: Come January, we may all be standing close to the San Andreas fault of government dysfunction.
Take the most likely result of the elections: a comfortable Clinton win, a very narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, and a reduced Republican majority in the House. Mix in the optimistic assumption that there’s at least some desire for a working relationship among Clinton and (current) GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.
Start with the speaker of the House. He is already facing calls for his head from the most fervent supporters of Trump, like talk show host Sean Hannity and the Breitbart News Network. When the new House convenes, the Republican caucus will be even more militantly conservative than it is now, since the GOP incumbents most likely to lose are relative moderates. (Of the 22 most endangered Republicans, according to the Cook Political Report, all come from blue and purple states). Now look at how a speaker is chosen: To win, you need a majority of all House members, not just your party’s. Democrats, with a possible few exceptions, will all vote for their leader, Nancy Pelosi. If the Republicans lose 20 seats in November, they will have about 225 members. (It’s 246 right now.) If only eight or so refuse to vote for Ryan—and remember, the “no-compromise” House Freedom Caucus has some 40 members—then Ryan will not have the 218 votes he needs to hold his position.
Then what, assuming he does not say “the hell with it” and leave the post? He could try to cut a deal with the Freedom Caucus, giving them more seats at the leadership table, or a promise not to abolish the Hastert rule (which requires a majority of Republicans to sign on to any bill before it moves to passage). He could agree to disdain any compromise with the new president on any significant legislation. He could, to push the scenario one step further, agree to deploy the full “power of the purse”—including refusing to raise the debt ceiling—as a bargaining chip to force Clinton to abandon her legislative agenda.
Alternatively, he could try to find votes across the aisle, hammering out a deal with enough Democrats to give him the majority needed. (We’ve seen such tactics in state legislative chambers, including New York.) But that would almost surely ensure a spate of party challenges against any Republican House member who went along with so “corrupt” a bargain. Remember, a significant share of Republican voters—maybe a majority—will already have decided that Clinton won the presidency only through a “rigged” system, and polls will show how more party members see Trump as the legitimate voice of the party, not Ryan. So the speaker’s maneuvering room is, to put it mildly, limited.
Now look at the Senate. The most likely losses in the Senate will, as in the House, come from the ranks of the relative “moderates”: senators like Kirk of Illinois, Ayotte of New Hampshire, Burr of North Carolina. The most conservative senators—Cruz, Lee, Sessions—will all be there, and the idea that they are going to support compromise on matters like judicial nominees is ludicrous. (It’s also why, if the Senate remains Republican, President Clinton is likely to see just about all of her judicial nominations filed away in deep storage. Indeed, Arizona Sen. John McCain already promised as much, before stepping back from that position.) This does not augur well for any kind of “reaching across the aisle” atmosphere—especially when you remember that the Republicans see 2018 as an all but certain year when they will recapture the Senate, given how many incumbent Democrats from red states will be on the ballot defending their seats.
But the pressures on the leaders are bipartisan. Imagine, for instance, if President Clinton is looking for some ground on which to stand with the Republicans, as Bill Clinton did on welfare reform and the budget. This is not Mrs. Clinton’s husband’s Democratic Party. It has moved significantly to the left—the party platform is dramatic evidence of that—and the progressive wing of the party is already feeling burned by the WikiLeaks revelations about just what her campaign thought about Sanders and the progressive movement.
So where is her running room? Walk back her opposition to trade pacts? Look for trims on entitlements? Try to shape an infrastructure program that allows for a multi-tiered wage structure? It’s hard to imagine any “reach across the aisle” that would not be characterized by party progressives as a deal with the devil. And with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, there will be highly visible figures to raise warnings of a Clinton surrender.
Maybe all this reflects a lack of faith in the political process; maybe after so sulfurous an election, there will be a real appetite for governing, as opposed to the permanent campaign that has dominated Washington in recent years.
Maybe; but given the likely lay of the land come next January, optimism takes an awful lot of faith; and, as the Good Book teaches, “... faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”