The president of your party has spent the summer attacking you and removing the last iota of deniability about the racism and xenophobia that animate his presidency (and much of your party). “Your” president has nothing but disdain for you, and he even ignores and alienates the titans of industry and many of your other natural allies.
It seems that nothing that you cared about is achievable. You are now scrambling simply to prevent shutdowns and defaults, with no help from the White House. Your president actually blindsides you by agreeing to your opponent’s policy suggestion during a face-to-face meeting, putting you in a worse bargaining position down the road.
Oh, and you are honestly not sure whether there will be a nuclear war.
This is a nightmare. If only the world had turned out differently, you think, with Trump in the ashbin of history and you and your fellow Republicans in Congress again riding high in your obstructionist saddles. You could be doing what you do best, rather than running away from reporters who ask incessantly about Trump’s tweets.
But would a Clinton victory in 2016 really have been better for you? The answer is most definitely yes, and the story is both complicated and fascinating.
The Alternative Histories of 2016
Four months ago, at the one hundred day mark of Trump’s presidency, I wrote a column in which I described what the American political scene might have looked like if Trump had lost the election, as he had understandably been expected to do, and we were instead marking the one-hundredth day of Hillary Clinton’s presidency.
In that alternate reality, I imagined a narrow Clinton win and a 51-49 Democratic majority in the Senate, but a House still controlled by Republicans (with a smaller majority).
The result, of course, would have been massive gridlock, with some small policy successes for Democrats in 2017 and 2018, but with huge impending electoral losses for Democrats in 2018 and 2020. Avoiding a Trump presidency would have bought two or four years of comparative sanity, but political Armageddon would have loomed for the Democrats.
Here, however, I explore a different alternative reality. Rather than imagining that the election campaign had proceeded pretty much as it actually did, but with a handful of votes shifting things the Democrats’ way for the White House and allowing them to win three additional Senate seats, I describe what Republicans could be facing today if their leaders had repudiated Trump en masse before the Republican convention.
This scenario was completely plausible at the time, and I continue to be amazed that Republicans did not seize such a golden opportunity. I even wrote about this idea in two columns shortly before their nominating convention last year.
At that time, some Republicans were still talking about ways to keep Trump even from becoming the presidential nominee. Because Trump had dominated the primaries (although he did have less than fifty percent of the total vote), however, their only realistic scenario was accepting the fact that he would be the nominee but then repudiating him.
I described in those columns the benefits to Republicans of cutting Trump loose and forging a unity ticket with the Clinton campaign—or at the very least agreeing, in a very loud and clear way, not to support Trump during the general election campaign.
In other words, rather than imagining what would have happened if the bruising campaign had turned out as polling suggested that it would turn out, the exercise here is to imagine a different campaign entirely.
The Clinton Neutralization Gambit
The idea of not fiercely opposing Hillary Clinton at every turn, of course, would be anathema to many Republicans. It surely would have torn the party apart to some degree, and it might have depressed turnout for down-ballot Republicans.
Even so, there is virtually no chance that the heavily gerrymandered Republican majority in the House would have flipped to the Democrats. (Compare that with what is now, under a president Trump, a very real likelihood that Republicans’ once-untouchable hold on the House will be broken in 2018. Even with the advantages of gerrymandering, Trump’s toxicity has put the House back in play.)
All the Republicans had to do was to run on one message: “Our nominating rules were poorly written this year, and that led to an unimaginably bad nominee, who is not even a real Republican. That means that Hillary Clinton will be the president. If you don’t like that any better than we do, vote for every other Republican you can!”
This would have made it especially difficult for Democrats to run tough campaigns in tight races. Republicans like now-former Senator Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire would not have been relentlessly tied to Trump, and she could still be sitting on Capitol Hill today.
Significantly, the Republicans could have won back all of those NeverTrump Republican pundits and prevented disgusted voters from sitting at home, making it very plausible that they would have held the Senate. So the best outcome for Republicans would have been holding both the House and the Senate, and the worst would have been holding only the House.
The lemonade-from-lemons strategy would have amounted to a bet that Republicans could have won all kinds of goodwill by rejecting the unqualified bigot who had stumbled onto their presidential ticket. Rather than running with even an extremist like Mike Pence, Trump would have flailed around and ended up running with Scott Baio or Maine’s bizarre governor. The rest of the party would have looked like heroes.
(Some congressional Republicans would have stuck with Trump, of course. There is, for example, no explaining Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, but at least we now know that it is not acceptable to laugh at him.)
Clinton, therefore, would have been elected on a lukewarm wave of voters saying: “Oh well, she’s the only sane choice.” That is the opposite of a mandate.
When she ran for reelection in 2020, Clinton would have been an incumbent running as a non-incumbent, stained in the public’s mind as the luckiest woman on earth who only became president by being able to lock down her party’s nomination in the year that the Republicans made the biggest oopsie in history.
The Advantages of Gridlock
But what about the four years that Clinton would have been president? We can start with Jason Chaffetz, the now-retired Republican congressman whose entire career was built around slinging mud at Clinton. Rather than trying to figure out how to run for governor of Utah, he would now be in hog heaven in Washington, running multiple inquiries into Benghazi, emails, and so on.
Every Republican would be in opposition mode. Much of Clinton’s time would thus have been spent simply fighting off Republicans’ attacks on her, possibly even including an attempted impeachment.
Even short of that, however, the Republicans would have secured for themselves a completely one-sided glow for putting country above party. Anything nasty that Republicans did to Clinton from then on could be excused, because “after all, they let her become president.”
Similarly, anything that Clinton did, no matter how innocuous, would have been attacked—by many Democrats and supposedly centrist pundits, not just Republicans—as inappropriately partisan. She would have been constantly cast as the ultimate ingrate.
In short, the Republicans would have been able to continue to deploy their finely tuned skills in obstruction, but they would have made it impossible for anyone to blame them for doing so.
Indeed, as I suggested in my columns last year, Republicans would even have been able to get Clinton to do pretty much what they wanted across the board. There is not an issue or area of governance in which Clinton would have had the upper hand.
Not just on the open Supreme Court seat, but on judicial nominations down the line, Republicans could have insisted on their version of bipartisanship. This would mean having the Democrats agree to approve “highly qualified” right-leaning judges whom the Republicans approved.
And even on the usual under-the-radar matters like cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments, Clinton would have been under pressure not to make people like Elizabeth Warren the Attorney General or Bernie Sanders the Secretary of the Treasury.
In fact, it is very easy to imagine that Clinton would have agreed to appoint Republicans to half of her cabinet positions. Even if she had tried to back out of that, and even if Democrats were in the majority in the Senate, it would be very likely that a combination of institutionalists (Patrick Leahy, Mark Warner) and red-state Democrats (Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill) would have held her to her word.
It is worth remembering that there is still a very strong wing of the Democratic Party that thinks that Bill Clinton’s triangulation strategy was not only politically savvy but also wise as a matter of policy. That is, all the “Third Way” types who are now telling Democrats not to act like Democrats would have been in Hillary Clinton’s ear, telling her to move ever further to the right.
In fact, it is even easy to see how Republicans could have boxed Clinton into a corner so completely that she would have ended the Dreamers (DACA) program. Republicans have argued for years—opportunistically and dishonestly, to be sure, but quite vociferously—that President Obama had abused his executive powers by issuing executive orders. It is easy to see how Clinton could have been forced to rescind many of those orders, in a show of good faith that she was not abusing the office that Republicans had handed her.
Instead, although Trump is now taking heat for canceling DACA, it is the Republicans who are stuck trying to find a legislative path (which might simply not exist) to allow the Dreamers to stay in the only country they have ever known.
What Republicans Would Have Gained—and Lost
Consider where those daydreaming Republicans would be now, if they had only abandoned Trump forcefully in 2016. They would not be confronted almost daily with proof that their party is at least willing to stand with an openly racist president.
Does anyone really think that Orrin Hatch enjoys being widely mocked for saying of Trump: “I don’t think there’s a racist bone in his body”? Would it not be better for every Republican to be on the attack, rather than on the defensive, every day?
And it would surely be better not to have been pushed by Trump to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act even when it was obvious that Republicans had no idea how to do so. Certainly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would rather spend his days checkmating Hillary Clinton than fighting with Trump about the filibuster.
Instead, Republicans are now defending the man who defies overwhelming public opinion on virtually every issue, from the Paris climate accord to the Arpaio pardon to the unhinged remarks about North (and even South) Korea. (Imagine how much the Republicans would have liked it if Clinton had been the president who was forced to respond to Kim Jong-un’s latest provocations!)
That is not to say that Republicans have not had a lot to like about Trump’s presidency. He has followed their playbook on environmental degradation, and his assault on workers’ paychecks, safety, and retirements has been nothing short of a rout.
Most significantly, the farthest-right Republicans have been rewarded for McConnell’s theft of a Supreme Court seat with now-Justice Neil Gorsuch, a man so conservative that he is already lining up more with Clarence Thomas than he does with the right-wing icon that Gorsuch replaced, Antonin Scalia. Republicans are also putting a pack of ideologues (some bizarrely unqualified) on the lower federal courts.
But again, the question is what they would have gotten under Clinton. True, they probably would not have gotten Gorsuch (or the guy who called Justice Kennedy a “judicial prostitute”), but they would almost surely have avoided even a centrist like Merrick Garland.
More to the point, Republicans could have lined themselves up for a huge win in the 2018 midterms, racking up as many as ten new Senate seats and taking their House majority to unprecedented levels.
They could thus have all but guaranteed a win for a more reliable arch-conservative like Marco Rubio or even Tom Cotton in 2020. In short, they would have been able to pack the courts for a generation, not just with one Gorsuch but with replacements for the four or five justices who will age out in the foreseeable future.
The downside for Republicans would have been an internal civil war. Even people who were willing to go along with the anti-Trump general election strategy would have been angry about it, and the complaints from Trump’s voters about the elites rigging the election would have been loud and shrill.
Even so, there is nothing like a good bogeyman to focus people’s attention and unite warring factions. Or in this case, the best bogeywoman of all time. Although I personally continue to admire her, Hillary Clinton maintains the ability to make Republicans see red in a way that no one else can.
Instead, Republicans are now looking at an even bigger internal war, which will be made worse if they are trounced in the 2018 midterms and especially if they end up having no choice but to impeach Trump.
All of which means that the Republicans could be forgiven for thinking: “If only Hillary had won, what good times we could have had!”