The last Senate race of the 2018 midterm elections has now been called for the (Confederate sympathizing) Republican incumbent in Mississippi. This was a disappointment–but hardly a surprise–for Democrats, who are surely relieved that they lost a net of only two seats in a year in which they faced an impossible Senate map.
And with the Democrats having picked up either 39 or 40 seats in their takeover of the House of Representatives, along with seven governors’ mansions and hundreds of state legislative seats, it was a very good year for Democrats, capping two years of strong performances in nearly every election since Donald Trump became president.
This makes it an especially apt moment to take another look at the alternative reality in which Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016, a place that I described in a Verdict column last year, assessing Madam President’s first 100 days in office. Where do things stand today in that faraway world?
Dateline: November 29, 2018, Washington, elsewhere in the multiverse
The Democratic Party–or what remains of it–has broken out in all-out warfare amid finger-pointing and recriminations in the aftermath of the worst mid-term defeat of a political party in American history. President Hillary Clinton, still a calm, unruffled warrior, is assessing whether she would make matters worse by trying to intervene in the battles within the party that she nominally leads.
It was only two years ago that Clinton had won a comfortable 100-Electoral-vote victory over Donald Trump, who now hosts low-rated daily rants on his failing Trump TV network and who is reviled by Republicans for having seized their nomination and then lost the White House to their most hated rival. After her victory, Clinton promised to try to unify the country, but it was obvious even then that no one—and certainly not she—could possibly do so.
Democrats in 2016 had picked up five Senate seats, giving them a 51-49 majority, and they had also managed to add seats in the house, cutting Republicans’ gerrymandered edge there to 230-205. The Democrats’ minority in the House, however, gave Clinton essentially no path forward, and the 2018 midterms were her party’s last chance to try to gain a governing majority.
Instead, Democrats earlier this month lost sixty-one seats in the House and an astonishing eighteen seats in the Senate, reducing them to a rump group of 144 members of the House and 33 Senators, giving Republicans two-thirds supermajorities in both houses.
Assuming that all Republicans continue to vote together, the Congress is now completely veto-proof. More dramatically, articles of impeachment have already been circulated among Republicans, not only to remove Clinton and Vice President Kaine from office but also to remove all of the judges and Cabinet secretaries who began service since Clinton’s term began. Even if every Democrat votes no, Republicans have the votes to do what they wish.
And even if they choose not to remove Clinton from office, Republicans have made it clear that they will now confirm only Cabinet and judicial appointees that they have pre-approved. The White House this week received a list of possible judges that was drawn up by the Federalist Society, and a coalition of Koch Brothers-financed groups has put together a list of Cabinet picks composed entirely of right-wing ideologues who are on the public record as saying that they favor deregulation and even the shuttering of the agencies that they would be appointed to run.
This is especially worrisome because the Executive Branch has been hobbled throughout Clinton’s presidency by a lack of top-level appointees. Even though her party has held a two-vote majority in the Senate, a rotating group of vulnerable red-state Democrats–with the notable exception of North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, who responded to her dim reelection prospects by bravely doing what she felt was right, rather than trying to save her own political hide–had self-destructively tried to prove their independence from Clinton by opposing what Republicans have called her “radical socialist” nominees. What could have been two years of limited success for Clinton was thus short-circuited by Democrats’ futile efforts to distance themselves from the caricature of her that Republicans (with a huge assist from the media) had drawn.
This even led to the Senate’s rejection of former Vice President Joe Biden’s nomination to be the Attorney General because of his support for, among other things, the concept of one-person-one-vote. Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III delivered an impassioned speech against Biden, reminding his colleagues that Biden had never denounced Barack Obama’s efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department has thus been operating under a series of acting Attorneys General since January of 2017.
All of the Democrats who tried to run away from their president nonetheless lost by double digits this month, and even several Democrats in what were thought to be safe seats were swept away in a toxic tide that allowed Republicans to turn the elections into a referendum on Clinton herself.
Republicans settled on three winning campaign slogans, “Clinton: There’s just something about her that we hate,” “Better without her,” and “Doesn’t she just bother you?” Many Democrats responded by saying, “Well, I am not comfortable with her, either, but …,” and then trailing off into inaudible comments about how important it is to have a qualified, tested, and humane leader. Self-styled centrist pundits then mocked those Democrats for defending Clinton at all, with New York Times columnist David Brooks speaking for many when he wrote, “The Democrats just need to understand that President Clinton is bad for them, and they have to prove their moderation by agreeing to Republicans’ reasonable demands, such as eliminating the minimum wage and taxing abortion clinics. Democrats cannot survive if they cling to radical ideas and prevent Social Security and Medicare from being privatized.”
This month’s election results were still surprising, however, because the Republicans had undergone such a public bloodletting after the November 2016 election. Everyone in the party claimed that they had never truly supported Donald Trump for president, citing instead hatred of Clinton as their reason for standing by him.
Notably, every national Republican solemnly stated that, if Trump had won, they would have insisted that he release his tax returns, divest himself of all of his holdings, and promise to hire only the most qualified Republicans available for all White House and Cabinet positions. They even joined with Democrats in passing an anti-nepotism bill, with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell intoning, “We would have passed this bill no matter who won in 2016. We would have stood up against appointments of Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner just as resolutely as we now stand against Bill and Chelsea Clinton.”
It is now difficult to remember, but during the transition from Obama to Clinton, it briefly appeared that the Republican Party might break up. Even though everyone in the party immediately distanced themselves from Trump, the people who had most publicly defended him during the campaign continued to say that his fervent voters should form the base of their future efforts. Trump’s flailing refusal to accept the results of the election, however, along with his open incitements of violence during the week of the inauguration, caused more cautious Republicans to say that they should try to marginalize the burgeoning hate groups that Trump had energized.
How did the Republicans reunite? McConnell and other party leaders, including now-Senator-elect Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio (whom Clinton announced this morning will be her next Supreme Court nominee, praising his “mainstream views”), reminded themselves of two things: (1) They had been so successful in demonizing Hillary Clinton over the years that they would have no problem (as discussed above) intimidating cowering Democrats into distancing themselves from her, and (2) What worked against Obama would work against Clinton.
It was the latter strategy that paid the biggest dividends for Republicans, even as it wrought havoc on the lives of most Americans. During the Obama years, they had managed to block or blunt actions that would have sped up the economic recovery, yet they successfully blamed Obama for the slow economic recovery that they had engineered. With Clinton in the White House, Republicans decided that it would be possible to be even more aggressive, because (unlike Obama) she began her presidency with no pool of public goodwill on which to draw. There was no honeymoon period, to put it mildly.
Even so, the economy had finally started to kick into gear in Obama’s final few years in office, and it seemed possible that even gross mismanagement of the economy–such as unimaginably regressive tax cuts, or perhaps a trade war–would not completely disrupt the progress that Republicans had failed to prevent while Obama was still president.
The answer to that problem, however, was quite simple: Republicans engineered another debt-ceiling crisis. As Professor Neil Buchanan, an economist and law professor at George Washington University, pointed out three years ago, the last major federal budget deal of the Obama years included a ticking time bomb. The debt ceiling was at that point suspended yet again (which is almost as good as repealing that unnecessary law once and for all), but it was set to come back into existence on March 15, 2017, less than two months into Clinton’s presidency. When that time came, Republicans pounced.
It began with a threat from now-former House Speaker Paul Ryan (who, most readers will recall, was swept aside by his Republican colleagues earlier this year for failing to be sufficiently angry in denouncing Clinton), who told Clinton that his caucus would not tolerate the “crushing debt” that she wanted to add to the backs of younger Americans. Clinton pointed out that the debt was growing only because of Republican-supported spending and taxing laws, but her response only made Ryan sigh condescendingly. He then insisted that she be the one to propose and lobby for cuts to popular middle-class programs, but Clinton refused.
What happened next was a perfect storm of bad intentions and bad luck. Although Republicans claimed that they would be able to get Clinton to knuckle under, she appropriately adopted Obama’s strategy of simply saying no to any renegotiations of budget items in the context of a debt ceiling deadline. Republicans believed that they would be able to wait until she blinked, and the stage was set for eleventh-hour negotiations.
At that point, however, Republicans made the fateful decision that they could actually go past midnight and risk some small amount of reversible damage to the economy in order to force Clinton to relent. Unfortunately, the lack of immediately obvious harm to the economy emboldened Republicans and even some Democrats to think that there would never be negative consequences if the federal government defaulted on its obligations.
As days passed, the financial markets finally came to the conclusion that this was no longer a brief stare-down, and stock prices crashed. At that point, Clinton listened to her “centrist” economic advisors, who told her that the markets would only regain confidence if she agreed to an enormous cut in federal spending (which would have to be even larger than anticipated, because the Republicans were by that point demanding regressive tax cuts as the price of their votes).
Clinton’s foolish decision to bet on “expansionary austerity” was enough to put what should have been a resilient economy into a deep recession, with reductions in federal spending across the board wiping out economic demand and causing the classic multiplier effect to destroy jobs. Reduced Social Security benefits and the complete elimination of food stamps and the earned-income tax credit devastated retirees and the working poor, and the economy is still in freefall.
This month’s election results were thus a surprise to no one. Republicans blamed President Clinton for the economic mess, and because they had succeeded in turning the public against her even before they had destroyed the economy, the public and many Democrats went along.
With House Speaker Kevin McCarthy set to become president after the Clinton/Kaine impeachment trials in January, Republicans will control every aspect of government, with the exception of the Supreme Court. Clinton’s only notable success, after all, has been the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the Court, but Republicans now plan to impeach him and replace him with Ted Cruz.
Meanwhile, rumors abound that Anthony Kennedy will soon announce his retirement, and Republicans have decided that their short list of acceptable candidates to replace him–including the polite Neil Gorsuch and the choirboy Brett Kavanaugh–all deserve to be on an expanded 13-seat high court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg declined to comment.