Clinton's Powerful, Unreliable Coalition
Election Day is more than two months away, but the continued inability of Donald Trump to run a minimally competent campaign, or demonstrate a threshold level of relevant knowledge, has left Hillary Clinton in a remarkably strong position. (Florida is the latest swing state to produce a spectacularly bad poll for Trump.)
Clinton could conceivably coast to a convincing victory in November, riding unprecedented levels of support from Hispanic voters and possibly even from black voters -- who could give the Democratic nominee a higher percentage of their vote than even the nation's first black president received.
President Clinton's chief goals would be to make progress, through legislation or executive action, on Democratic priorities such as immigration and middle-class security; to retain or expand the Democrats' national coalition; and to activate that coalition in the midterm election of 2018, when Democrats will be defending 25 of 33 Senate seats.
If she is especially ambitious, Clinton may also try to sink the divided GOP, which is listing with no obvious safe port on the horizon. The components of the Obama coalition are growing even as the Republicans' older, whiter base shrinks. If Clinton can keep that expanding Democratic base reasonably content and motivated, she should do well enough. If she can also expand into moderate Republican terrain, she'll threaten the GOP's future.
In an interview, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Clinton has the political latitude to embrace moderates without losing the Democrats' liberal base. "The cloud in the silver lining is always events," he said. "Lyndon Johnson post-'64 had a broad coalition of liberals and moderates. What undid that was Vietnam."
Clinton's jungle war could be a Republican Congress. Given Republicans' success in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, which followed their relentless obstruction of Obama's legislative efforts, it seems unlikely that Republicans will adopt a more conciliatory approach to Clinton. If they hold a majority in either chamber of Congress, and even if they don't, they will pursue the only goal on which Republicans wholeheartedly agree: making a Democratic president fail.
Thus, Clinton's "mandate" will depend not on the size of her victory, or the policies on her website, but on whether a Democratic Congress is swept to victory with her. "The elected officials in both parties, particularly in Congress, are so ideologically polarized that it has become almost impossible to get them to agree on anything," said Middlebury College political scientist Matthew Dickinson, via e-mail. "As a result, if presidents are going to govern, they invariably rely on only their own party in Congress."
A Republican majority has the capacity to eat at Clinton's coalition from both ends, frustrating Democratic partisans into apathy while repelling moderates who desperately want Washington to work.
"Even if Clinton does expand the Democratic coalition -- and based on demographics that's certainly possible -- it's not going to mean much in terms of enacting policy if she can't get a party majority in Congress," Dickinson said.
"Of course," he added, "if the country is truly moving left, then Clinton and a Democratic congressional majority may be able to pass a progressive agenda -- say, health care with a public option, higher marginal tax rates, $15 minimum wage, free tuition at public college, greater regulation on fracking, etc., without engendering a backlash."
Neither Obama nor George W. Bush managed that -- though Obama had a spectacularly productive first two years before the backlash ensued. When their own parties held Congress, they couldn't keep it. Clinton has the capacity to put together a truly dominant coalition, which could produce a decisive victory in November. But if she wants a victory, and policies, that endure, she's going to have to achieve what Obama never did: turn out Democratic voters for a midterm.
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