Hillary Clinton has managed to win support from Republicans without conceding any part of the progressive economic agenda she outlined during the Democratic primary.
But with fall approaching and momentum on Clinton’s side, Democrats and Republicans alike are looking over the horizon to a thornier reality: if elected, Clinton would likely become the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland to enter office without control of both houses of Congress.
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That means the bipartisan show of support she has now — thanks to Donald Trump and the “alt-right,” conspiracy-driven campaign Clinton attacked Thursday in Reno — is likely to evaporate as soon as the race is called. If she wins the presidency, Clinton would likely enjoy the shortest honeymoon period of any incoming commander-in-chief in recent history, according to Washington strategists, confronting major roadblocks to enacting her ambitious agenda, as well as Republican attacks that have been muted courtesy of the GOP nominee.
“It will be the defining fact of her presidency,” Jonathan Cowan, president of the moderate think tank Third Way, said of Clinton’s problem of entering office with a divided Congress. “It’s unprecedented.”
President Obama and former President Bill Clinton both enjoyed at least two years of a Democratic majority in Congress when they entered the White House, a period when they were able to enact major portions of their agendas.
While Democrats are confident about taking control of the Senate if Clinton wins the election, even her top operatives who have been working to elect down-ballot Democrats do not expect to snatch up the House of Representatives.
“What that would leave her with is an absolute imperative to govern from the center,” said Cowan, a former Bill Clinton White House official. “She will have no choice. There is no choice. Obama will have picked most of the low hanging executive orders, and she’ll be in this Grover Cleveland moment.”
At the same time, many Republicans who have aligned themselves with Clinton say they feel like they have been “holding their fire” — and that ends Nov. 9.
“In any other election, the majority of national security Republicans would be going after her, and I would be enthusiastically doing so,” said Kori Schake, a veteran of George W. Bush’s National Security Council and State Department, and an adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “She wasn’t a particularly good secretary of state, the lack of judgement on emails was a shock to a lot of us. She rightly criticized the Bush administration for its failures creating stability in Iraq — and made the exact same mistake herself on Libya.”
Schake is on the long and growing list of Republicans who have said they plan to support Clinton this fall. But many of those Republicans for Hillary don’t want a vote against Trump to be confused with any newfound love for Clinton.
“A lot of us would like to hold her accountable for the failures, but we are holding our fire,” Schake said. “It’s because all of us are afraid of Trump. If she wants to maintain our support after, she’s going to have to address our policy concerns about the economy and America’s role in the world.”
For now, Clinton has stuck to her primary promises of raising taxes on the wealthy and overhauling corporate taxes to pay for initiatives like paid family leave and debt-free college.
Republican strategist Tim Miller, Jeb Bush’s former communications director turned anti-Trump activist, has found himself in an odd position this cycle: the unlikely darling of Democrats gleeful at his taunting of Trump. He finds that perplexing.
“I would love to be working against Hillary Clinton right now, but it’s a strange year,” said Miller. “The cannons have been lowered against her because of our candidate. Hillary Clinton, being a multi-decade partisan who fought tooth and nail with Republicans and called them her enemy, is uniquely ill-suited to having a honeymoon period if she wins.”
He noted that next year, the focus will be on her domestic agenda, “which is not in any way bipartisan.”
Clinton and her campaign have been trying to make a bipartisan-sounding pitch. “I will be president for Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Clinton said in a speech the night she clinched her party’s nomination on June 7. Her running mate Tim Kaine addressed disaffected Republicans from the DNC stage last month: “we have a home for you here in the Democratic party.”
The campaign hopes that inclusive tone can stretch into next year. “Our sole concern right now is in continuing to build a coalition of support to elect Hillary Clinton as the next president,” said campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. “We are keenly aware that how you approach the campaign influences the situation you inherit when it comes to governing. Republicans and Democrats alike believe in increased investment in infrastructure. Republicans and Democrats alike believe we need to act to reform our immigration system.”
Fallon added that the Democratic nominee remains optimistic about at least gaining seats in the House. “The composition of the Congress that a potential President Clinton would be working with is not at all predetermined,” he said.
Neither is Clinton’s victory, although with a six point lead over Trump nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, many Republicans are now girding for that eventuality.
Republicans operatives on the Hill, for instance, are already planning to block Clinton’s agenda by strategically targeting individual Democratic senators who will be up for reelection in 2018. “Take Joe Manchin in West Virginia,” explained one GOP operative of the strategy. “If Hillary puts up an anti-coal pro-EPA judge for the Supreme Court, the smart play is to start pressuring him with an advocacy campaign to vote no.” Voting with Clinton would jeopardize his reelection chances, and voting against her would rob her of a Democratic Senate vote she couldn’t afford to lose without the 60 votes needed to filibuster.
Meanwhile, Clinton is facing similar pressure from the left when it comes to sticking to her campaign promises. “Appointments will be the first taste that people get, as to whether she is going to think big and be willing to dare Republicans to oppose populist positions and appointees,” said Adam Green, whose group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, will be one of a host of progressive organizations advocating to appoint anti-Wall Street crusaders to posts like Treasury Secretary and Chief of Staff. Green added that the left will be pushing Clinton to begin her administration by “daring Republicans to oppose her” on big ticket items like expanding Social Security and instituting debt-free college.
With pressure from both sides, “it is inconceivable she would have a mandate to govern coming in,” said Dan Holler, communications director at the conservative Heritage Action for America. “There should be a distinction in how people think of a campaign, and then legislating. It’s been an incredibly convoluted election cycle. Using that to judge where people will be in January is not a reliable indicator.”
Republicans on the Hill said that much of what Clinton has proposed during her campaign amounts to unfinished agenda items of the Obama administration — and they don’t expect her to have any more luck than he did while facing an obstructionist Republican Congress. “If she wins, her four years will look a lot like the last six years of Obama,” said one influential House Republican staffer. “She’s talking about things the president couldn’t get done, why does she think she will have more luck?”
Some Republicans warned that Clinton will have less. Groups like America Rising PAC have spent years researching the most effective attacks on Clinton. “There is a long history of Republicans opposing pretty much everything Hillary Clinton has done, from trying to reform healthcare in the 1990s to what she was doing as secretary of state — there’s a long memory there,” said Holler. “Assuming she wins, Republicans could in some world say the message here is that we have to compromise with Hillary Clinton. I’d be very surprised if that was their takeaway.”