Eric Davis: Clinton may not be more electable
Hillary Clinton argues that she is more likely than Bernie Sanders to defeat the eventual Republican presidential nominee. I can offer four reasons to doubt Clinton’s claim.
First, Sanders’ “outsider” campaign may do better in the fall than many Washington-based analysts believe, especially if Donald Trump ends up being the Republican nominee. While Sanders’ style and substance are very much the opposite of Trump’s, Sanders could do better than Clinton in appealing to angry voters who believe that political and economic elites have left them behind over the past several decades.
The limited evidence from primaries and caucuses so far is that Sanders’ supporters are more enthusiastic than Clinton’s supporters. Sanders could be more successful in increasing turnout in the general election. Clinton’s turnout efforts could end up saying, “You need to vote for me to prevent the election of a Republican you don’t like,” while Sanders’ turnout efforts could end up saying, “Vote for me because you agree with me and you know I stand with you on the issues.”
Second, Clinton’s current strategy of sometimes seeming to be running for Obama’s third term could help her win the Democratic nomination, but could turn out to hurt her in the fall among independent voters who are lukewarm toward the president. The electorate seems to want change, and promising continuity may not be an effective strategy for the general election.
Third, the New Hampshire exit poll showed that many voters have reservations about Clinton’s honesty and ethics. These issues are not going away. Career prosecutors in the Justice Department could recommend that charges be filed against Clinton for misuse of classified information on her private email server. Even if Attorney General Lynch or other political appointees in the Justice Department take no action on those recommendations, news stories about these things have a tendency to leak out.
Also, the State Department’s Inspector General is investigating the activities of Huma Abedin, Clinton’s long-time assistant. The investigation apparently involves conflicts of interest from the time in 2012 when Abedin was simultaneously employed by the State Department, the Clinton Foundation, and Teneo, a consulting firm with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Continued attention to this investigation will not help the Clinton campaign.
Fourth, Clinton claims that her “pragmatic progressive” policies would receive a better reception on Capitol Hill than Sanders’ call for a “political revolution.” I believe that both Clinton and Sanders would be equally unsuccessful dealing with Congressional Republicans.
Republicans are nearly certain to hold on to a majority of the House of Representatives in the next Congress. The Senate could possibly tip Democratic, if Democratic candidates make a net gain of four seats and hold the tie-breaking vote in the person of the next vice president. Even if Democrats do have the smallest of Senate majorities, the Republican contingent in the Senate will be large enough to sustain filibusters.
Thus, I do not envision either Clinton or Sanders seeing many of their proposals being enacted by Congress. They would likely die in committee in the House, and would be filibustered in the Senate, if they made it to the floor in that chamber. Republicans would claim the continued presence of a Republican majority in the House, and a large Republican contingent in the Senate, would show that the country is not united behind the new president’s policies.
If a Democrat is elected president in November, the pattern of legislative-executive relations of the last four years should continue: a congressional focus on investigations of the executive branch rather than passing legislation. What legislation is enacted will likely be end-of-the-session omnibus bills tied to the expiration of deadlines on spending and tax policy.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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