PHILADELPHIA –Thursday night’s acceptance speech by Hillary Clinton will be mostly a symbolically resonant and broad-brush appeal to millions of undecided voters who still perceive her as the most famous but least understood and mistrusted presidential nominee of modern times.
But, just off stage this week, her closest campaign and policy advisers along with some senior congressional Democrats are already looking beyond the fall campaign. They are starting to plot the course for a presidency that would very likely begin in a divided government.
“It’s going to be tough, but we think we can get some stuff done,” campaign chairman John Podesta concedes about the prospect of enacting her legislative priorities in collaboration with a House that looks to remain Republican and a Senate that will be very closely split no matter which party wins control this fall.
But as soon as the honeymoon period shows signs of ending, and the GOP signals its main objective during the new Clinton administration is to stymie her, she is prepared to be as muscular in the use of executive authority as President Barack Obama, whose assertiveness on this score has not only intensified disdain from Republicans on Capitol Hill but also troubled many in his party.
“Of course it would be better if we could get some cooperation from Congress, but we’re not waiting long for that,” Podesta said. “She’d rather find common ground, but she’ll stand her ground.”
There is no modern precedent for the likeliest 2017 balance of power in Washington. The eight most recent Democratic presidents had a Democratic Congress to work with for at least his first two years, making Grover Cleveland the most recent predecessor Clinton might look to for example. And Cleveland faced little beyond spurned nominations and veto-bait legislation from the 49th Congress.
Podesta, who has not ruled out taking a senior administration job should she be elected but does not want to reprise his role as White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, headlined a briefing Wednesday sponsored by The Atlantic that also included three other powerful players in Hillary Clinton’s orbit of policy advisers.
All of them agreed that another drive to overhaul immigration policy, centered on creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions now in the country illegally, would be launched within her first 100 days, as Clinton has vowed, and consume a good share of whatever the political capital the 45th president has to spend.
The group also concurred that, despite some contradictory signals this week that rattled delegates for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton would remain opposed to the Pacific Rim trade liberalization accord known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. She would not make renegotiating it a priority next year while pursuing a different economic agenda.
“The Philippines and the Japanese and other countries in that region are going to want America to lead, they’re going to wait for a President Clinton to define how we should engage in trade,” counseled Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.
A Fast-Track Plan
Clinton's advisers signaled that right after the inauguration, the new president would pursue legislation doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, authorizing billions of dollars in new public works spending, and seeking to boost the quality of the American workforce with new subsidies for both family leave and college tuition.
They left little doubt she would ask Congress to pay for all that by raising taxes on the richest individuals even while creating new tax breaks for businesses that boost their domestic employment rolls. Offsetting the cost of her priorities by curbing the growth of the safety net entitlements (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) was not discussed. Neither was deficit reduction.
The likeliest legislative avenue for pursuing her agenda would be packing all of the proposals in a so-called reconciliation bill – legislation that, if it can be crafted in a way that alters the size of projected deficits, can move through Congress on simple majorities, without amendment and protected from any Senate filibuster.
Providing that fast track would be a decision of the top Hill leadership – a potentially insurmountable obstacle if the House stays Republican, no matter which side has the Senate majority. But the Clinton acolytes say there’s reason for cautious optimism, especially if a Donald Trump defeat with significant reverse coattails prompts the GOP to reassert an interest in get-it-done governance.
If November's election shows Republicans losing badly among women and Hispanics, the advisers said, that might entice the party’s leaders to relax their objections to an immigration bill and to Clinton’s aspirations to make pre-kindergarten universally available with a boost of federal spending.
Perhaps the only silver lining on Trump’s candidacy, they say, is that he won the nomination over the tea party forces and thereby tamped down the recent Republican zeal for a dramatic shrinking of the federal government.
A fundamental predictor of the likelihood of bipartisan deal-making is whether House Speaker Paul D. Ryan remains in that post and “decides he needs to be focused on the national party’s prospects for many years to come, or is only focused on 2018,” said Neera Tanden, the head of the progressive Center for American Progress and a longtime Clinton intimate.
Midterm elections tend to favor the party out of the White House. The GOP’s margin of House control, now a comfortable 29 seats, will almost assuredly be smaller in the next two years. And, no matter what happens this election, in 2018 the Democrats will have three times as many Senate seats to defend against GOP challenges (25) as the other way around (eight).
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, a Californian who’s close to Clinton, said if GOP leaders decide to seek accomplishments with a Democratic president, they must accept legislation that will pass with the support of most Democrats, but not necessarily with votes from the most confrontational conservatives.
“She is eager to go looking for that sweet spot,” he said of Clinton.
On issues where that remains elusive, her advisers said, she would move aggressively to implement changes by executive order. They mentioned gun control and environmental policy, along with immigration
Their assumption is Clinton would be able to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with someone prepared to uphold Obama’s plan to shield millions of immigrants from deportation and allow them to openly participate in the labor force. (The group was circumspect about whether Clinton would stick with Obama’s choice of 63-year-old Judge Merrick Garland, if he’s not confirmed after the election, or nominate someone younger and more overtly progressive.)
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida offered this cautionary note when asked to predict Clinton’s first-year priorities and the congressional reaction to them: “Well, it depends. What will be the emergency next year? Because those are the times we live in.”