By all appearances, Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to take down the entire Republican Party – mainly just Donald Trump’s chances at becoming president.
Mrs. Clinton’s speech last week attacking Mr. Trump and the conservative movement known as the “alt-right” made that crystal clear. She accused Trump of “taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party.”
And she used headlines from the alt-right-infused Breitbart News - whose chairman, Stephen Bannon, is now CEO of Trump’s campaign – as a foil for her attacks on Trump.
But Clinton spared congressional Republicans from her wrath and even offered words of support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, she noted, had tagged Trump’s attack on a Mexican-American judge as “textbook” racism. She praised Sen. John McCain for his 2008 defense of Barack Obama as an American citizen and decent man. And she rejected Trump’s claim that Sen. Ted Cruz’s Cuban father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.
Clinton wasn’t doing this out of altruism. She was preparing for the future. Unless the trajectory of the presidential race changes substantially – Trump’s chances of winning stand at 19 percent, per the FiveThirtyEight blog – Clinton is likely the next president, and she wants at least a fighting chance of getting things done. That means a functioning opposition party.
“I think she’s giving Republicans a sense that she’ll talk to them,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Of course, Clinton does want the Democrats to retake the Senate and slim down the GOP’s big majority in the House, so she’s not exactly offering lifelines to too many endangered Republicans. Not that praise from Clinton necessarily helps Republicans with their voters. But as things stands now, if Democrats do take over the Senate, their margin of control will be slim – and she will still need Republican votes to reach the 60 needed to defeat a filibuster. And chances remain strong that Republicans will hold onto the House.
Bottom line: To get anything done, a President Hillary Clinton will need to work with Republicans. And for now, that means keeping a laser focus on Trump, including portraying him as not a “real” Republican, while making sure she can still have some kind of working relationship with party leadership later.
“I think she wants to be able to work with [Senate majority leader Mitch] McConnell and [Speaker] Ryan, so she’s not going to try to do anything to alienate them more than just her very being alienates them,” says Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.
A record of bipartisanship
Clinton’s history as a senator, from 2001 to 2009, suggests a willingness to work hard, focus on policy and not point-scoring, and work across the aisle. During her first run at the presidency in 2008, even the most conservative senators spoke highly of Clinton.
In a Monitor interview in 2008, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania praised Clinton as “much more of a uniter” in the Senate than her then-rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Obama. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, used to joke that she and Senator McCain got along so well their presidential debates would put voters to sleep.
A comparison of Clinton’s style as a senator and Obama’s style as both a senator and president raises some hope that she may have more success in working with Congress than he has.
“She and Obama are both policy wonky,” says Professor Swers. “But she’s more willing to do the personal outreach and courting of members of the other party in a way that maybe Obama wasn’t.”
But the Washington of 2008, as partisan as it was, isn’t the hyper-partisan Washington of 2016, and a Senator Clinton – one of 100, and a member of the minority party most of her time there – isn’t the same as a President Clinton. It’s also easy to see a Clinton presidency instantly bogged down by congressional investigations into her emails and the Clinton family foundation. Still, it’s also possible to see Clinton and the Republicans trying for some early accomplishments in 2017 on areas where the two parties – and the public – agree.
While Clinton has campaigned heavily on hot button issues such as free tuition for public colleges and immigration reform, she has also talked about a “first 100 days” agenda that includes areas of common ground.
“She has said that infrastructure spending is a priority, and I think that’s pretty deliberate,” says Swers. “She figures, what are the areas Republicans might actually agree to move on, and infrastructure spending might be one.”
Trump’s $1 trillion proposal for infrastructure spending, in fact, is far more expensive than Clinton’s, at $275 billion.
A changed GOP?
But exactly what kind of Republican Party will take its seats in the House and Senate come January is anybody’s guess. If Nov. 8 brings a blowout, it may take a while for the new GOP to get its bearings. A narrow defeat for Trump may leave his wing of the party emboldened, and an establishment GOP leadership on Capitol Hill under siege. A Trump victory would signal a wholesale remake of the party.
But if Clinton wins and Democrats retake the Senate, her biggest challenge in dealing with Congress will be the House. The Republicans who lose their House seats in November are likely to be what’s left of the more moderate wing of the House Republican conference. Members in safe red districts – some of whom align with the tea party-oriented Freedom Caucus – aren’t going to lose.
“Ryan will have less of a cushion,” says Swers. And so the leader Clinton may have hopes of working with may have little room for maneuver.
But for now, Democratic allies of Clinton in the House are working Ryan from a different angle. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, three senior House Democrats – Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Xavier Becerra of California, and Nita Lowey of New York all called on Ryan, Senator McConnell, and other Republican leaders to distance themselves from Trump’s “hateful rhetoric.”
Clinton’s alt-right speech elicited mostly silence from the mainstream right. But that doesn’t mean Republican leaders didn’t hear the message. The story of 2016 is far from over.