Clinton Must Begin Waging Her Next War
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election on Tuesday, she will be under no illusions about what awaits. Even if Donald Trump is defeated, the political party that nurtured his dangerous ambition will not be. (And Trump may never concede defeat in any case.)
Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 amid waves of euphoria. By the night of his inauguration, with the U.S. losing thousands of jobs a day and the world hurtling toward a second Great Depression, Republican leaders had decided to oppose every remedy Obama proposed in an effort to break him.
Clinton, the subject of "Lock her up!" chants at her opponent's political rallies, will not be afforded Obama's multi-hour honeymoon. The moment the election is over, Republicans will resume their effort to destroy her. (It's the one course they agree on.)
Clinton will need to begin building trust among the public immediately, preparing for the twilight struggle ahead. This will require magnanimity, determination and occasional bouts of phoniness as she publicly reaches out to opponents who she knows have no intention of working with her. (If Speaker Paul Ryan steps down, as seems increasingly possible, or even if he stays, Clinton will likely be dealing with a House leader who lacks even the capacity to work with her due to the fractious and dysfunctional House Republican Conference.)
Americans will still expect Clinton to reach across the aisle, but she needn't limit the outreach to Congress, where Republicans have few incentives to cooperate. She should shower attention on the handful of pragmatic GOP governors, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, who will probably run against her in 2020. It will be a difficult dance. But Kasich, who knows he cannot win another GOP anger primary, will relish the opportunity to show national leadership. And Clinton will gain credit, and public trust, for the effort.
She can also make headway with conservatives who don't hold office, projecting "a sense of movement and willingness to meet with anyone," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in an e-mail. "I'd meet with the Koch brothers. Where can we make progress? Prison reform? Immigration?"
Clinton can make use of public performance to establish her narrative. Deeply knowledgeable and naturally empathetic, she excels in public policy forums. She should invite Republican congressional leaders to join her, publicly enticing them to debate their plans -- especially their least popular ones, for entitlements, taxes and such -- in a search for common ground. (If the skillful and telegenic Ryan is removed from the picture, this should become an even more favorable contrast for Clinton.) There is much in the Republican agenda, including tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare, that Clinton has cause to publicize over and over.
The debate should be big, and contentious enough to grab attention, even as she keeps her own rhetoric factual and civil. Republicans will almost certainly dodge any compromise that Clinton floats. But for their intransigence to register with voters, there must be a long, theatrical buildup to rejection.
"One of the great virtues we've seen in this campaign is that she stays on task," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "She does not get distracted."
After every failed joint venture, Clinton should announce a bold or imaginative executive action that she is taking, her solitary course made necessary by a dysfunctional, oppositional Congress. The more provocative the better.
There are other ways she can fortify herself, strategically, against the chaos emanating from Congress. Democratic consultant Robert Shrum suggests that Clinton call on Obama cabinet appointees to stay in their posts and submit their resignations, "effective on confirmation of their successors."
This will keep the departments up and running while reducing the number of hostages available for taking. Not every legislative chokehold can be avoided. But those that can be, should be.
The U.S. government's Madisonian gears are not frictionless in the best of times. These times are not good. Republican calls for endless investigations and pre-emptive impeachment have already begun. The party is in a vicious downward cycle of reaction. Clinton can't stop it, and she can't afford to wait for the GOP to self-destruct. Her habitual caution should be reserved for foreign policy; at home, she will have to take political and personal risks.
Clinton will likely face a nullification Congress determined to destroy her capacity to govern. The public trusts her policy decision-making, but she will have to buttress the low trust in her character, through sustained public engagement, and leverage the considerable power of the executive branch to defend herself and her administration from attacks without end.
If she wins on Tuesday, Clinton will conclude one political war. A larger one begins on Wednesday.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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