The 2016 presidential election took a turn this week that signaled the race to watch now will be what happens next January.
Donald Trump’s hot-mic tape with lewd comments about women may have sealed his fate, but it also set in motion a cascading reaction among high-ranking Republicans worried about a possible electoral sweep that could return Democrats to control in the Senate and even the House.
Speaker Paul Ryan convened his fellow House Republicans to say it is every man for himself in local congressional elections and urged them to do what’s necessary for the GOP to retain control of the House. Ryan said losing congressional control would give Hillary Clinton a “blank slate” to pursue progressive policies.
The worry expressed by Ryan contrasts with conventional wisdom of just a few weeks ago. It was assumed whoever won the presidential election would face an obstinate Congress. If Clinton won, Republicans would stymie her campaign proposals on taxation, trade and immigration. If Trump won, Democrats would block some of his more extreme measures on taxation, trade and immigration.
With leading Republicans now in panic mode, observers are beginning to picture different scenarios in 2017 when there is a new president and Congress. Here are a few of those scenarios:
- Clinton and Congress, with a thinner GOP majority, collaborate on tax reform, increased support for child care, reduced college student debt interest and greater federal assistance to industries and workers affected by globalization and technology change. Also expect a more aggressive approach toward terrorism at home and abroad.
- Clinton and Democratically controlled Senate push for higher taxes on wealthy individuals, more assistance for working parents, free or reduced college tuition for students from middle-income families and tougher trade policies.
- Clinton and a Democratically controlled Congress will go further and seek a public option for individuals under the Affordable Care Act, pay equity, a higher federal minium wage, comprehensive immigration reform and restoration of some Glass-Steagal limitations on banks and investment firms.
While campaigns present the opportunity for political candidates to express policy priorities, election outcomes shape the world of possibilities when candidates are in office.
Consider Obamacare as an example. No one, including President Obama, argues that changes aren’t needed. Clinton has defended Obamacare and says changes should improve it. Republicans have called for repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with something else, which hasn’t exactly been spelled out in detail. Building off Bernie Sanders’ campaigned on a Medicare for all platform, which has morphed into a Democratic platform plank to insert a public option into the Obamacare health exchanges. What changes have political legs in 2017 will depend entirely on how political power lines up in the White House and Congress.
The same could be said for tax and trade changes and for immigration legislation, which has been the signature issue of the Trump campaign. Democrats will say a Trump defeat amounts to a voter repudiation of his anti-immigrant positions and clears the path for Congress to adopt legislation that addresses issues from border security to vetting immigrants from places like Syria to treatment of the 12 million undocumented men, women and children who live work and go to school in the United States.
The Trump meltdown paradoxically may make it easier for Clinton and Congress, even one still controlled by Republicans, to collaborate on major legislation. Both political parties have been assailed for bickering more than legislating, which may be a greater long-term political liability than the festering discontent of Trump supporters who aren’t likely to disappear after the election.
Collaboration, however, may not extend to every issue. The best example is legislation to address gun violence. Clinton has called for tighter background checks to prevent people with criminal backgrounds or a history of mental illness from obtaining guns. The National Rifle Association, perhaps anticipating a Trump defeat, has directed all its political attention at Clinton, claiming she is an enemy of the Second Amendment – a claim that may have a lot to do with the voter vitriol aimed at Clinton and her candidacy.
As the first female president, Clinton will understandably press for policies of importance to women. Tougher laws against sexual assault and domestic violence would probably find receptive audiences among both Democrats and Republicans following the 2016 election. Clinton support for Planned Parenthood funding and retaining reproductive freedom might find the same resistance in the halls of Congress.
There is still nearly a month to go before the election, and anything can happen. But this week, you could feel the mood of at least the political elite shift from who will win to what will happen when Clinton wins. That question will be answered when the heads are counted in Congress next January.