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More of the Same Next Year? History is Not So Clear…

October 17, 2016

So much for the change election, right? If current polling trends hold and a Trump collapse doesn’t take down the House GOP majority, we’re looking at four more years of a Democratic White House, two more years of a Republican House (albeit, with smaller margins), and a Senate so closely divided that neither party – no matter who has control - easily gets a needed 60-vote supermajority. Are we facing another Congress next year with the same bias toward gridlock, with slightly different players, or is there realistic hope for a new dynamic? Here are some historical factors to keep in mind that might make next year different.If Hillary Clinton wins, she will be the first Democratic President to succeed another Democratic President, without a death occurring, in modern political history. The last President to succeed a fellow partisan was George H.W. Bush, but Democrats have not gone through a same-party transition since James Buchanan’s presidency. So it will be interesting to see where, and how, the current Democratic Administration ends and the new Administration begins, not only in terms of policies but also personnel. What Obama legacy issues and staff will Clinton continue and where will her priorities diverge from the current administration?Another precedent to fall will be that of Democratic presidents, historically, assuming office with congressional majorities in both chambers of Congress. Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton both enjoyed substantial bicameral Democratic majorities during their first two years in office. In fact, every new Democratic President since Grover Cleveland’s first election, whether elected or succeeding a fallen predecessor, had the blessing, or curse, of a Democratic Congress when they first took office.In recent history, unified control came with high expectations to correct the perceived wrongs of the prior GOP Administration and deliver for the Democratic base. In President Obama’s case, this contributed to mostly party-line passage of the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and a stimulus package for Obama; and a Crime Bill, stimulus package, and a failed and divisive attempt at health care reform for Bill Clinton. But majority control was ephemeral, and backlash against the fruits of one-party rule forced Democrats to surrender control of both chambers two years later, leading Bill Clinton to compromise with - and Obama to go around - congressional Republicans for the next six years.Clinton’s transition into the presidency will be fraught by the push and pull of competing forces. She likely will face a divided Congress, with at least one chamber in Republican hands on day one. Many will view her as simply the “better of two alternatives” and undeserving of the mandate that traditionally accompanies incoming presidents. She will not have the pent-up demand of her party to overturn policies of a prior Republican president, but will be viewed warily by the more-liberal Democratic base. She will have received endorsements from prominent GOP establishment figures, but will be hard-pressed to translate that support into success dealing with the GOP’s elected class. All the while, President Hillary Clinton will be expected to unify a bitterly divided country, not to deliver a partisan agenda.Such a scenario opens the door for a President Hillary Clinton to enter the White House in a collaborative mood. While she will want to protect the Democratic policy gains made during the Obama era (as demanded by her base), she may find common cause with Republicans (and moderate Democrats) on updates and improvements to Obama’s legislative accomplishments (Dodd-Frank; ACA, etc.)Though a polarizing public figure, Hillary Clinton was a politically shrewd Senator: for a good part of her tenure, she deliberately and disarmingly reached across the aisle, flew beneath the radar and yielded the national limelight, and aggressively focused on New York State-centric, bread-and-butter economic development issues. Though she can’t shun the spotlight as President, I can see her adopting similar tactics as her Senate career where her Administration is almost like a parliamentary coalition, including a number of prominent Republican cabinet members and a deliberate, sustained, and high-profile attempt to court Republican leadership. And without the need, and expectations, to deliver on a partisan Democratic agenda, she will have more room to propose an economic agenda focused on less partisan issues such as infrastructure, education reform, and perhaps tax reform.She will have to thread a very small needle, between an energized Sanders wing of the party and a Senate Democratic caucus facing a very difficult, Red/Purple State-heavy mid-term map in 2018. But she’ll start with newly-ascended Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer leading the charge in the Senate, a natural dealmaker who wants to produce results. It could make for a surprisingly historic Congress, if she can get Republicans – and her base - to play along.

Paul Brown

Paul has 20-plus years of public affairs experience and works with a wide range of Prime Policy Group's clients, including those in the telecommunications, energy, local government, and travel & tourism sectors. Among other things, Paul helps guide clients through the complex world of the U.S. Senate, using knowledge of Senate procedure and a wide range of policy issues gained from his work in Senate Democratic leadership. He also helps coordinate Prime’s integration efforts with other WPP and Burson Marsteller companies, and serves as treasurer of the firm’s political action committee.
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