Republican Voters Could Help Usher in an Imperial Clinton Presidency

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If ticket-splitters deny Clinton a Congress she can work with, she may have no choice but to expand her own powers.Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Be careful what you wish for, anti-Trump Republicans!

It is pretty well established by now that a small but crucial slice of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is likely to give Hillary Clinton the votes she needs to become the 45th president of the United States, perhaps by a quite comfortable margin.

It’s much less likely, however, that these same voters will award the next President Clinton with the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate she would need to end the gridlock of the last six years and enact significant portions of her agenda via the legislative process.

So far, Clinton’s recent polling surge is not looking much like a top-to-bottom-of-the-ticket wave. As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight has noted, Senate Democrats may actually be losing ground (in Wisconsin, left-for-dead Republican incumbent Ron Johnson suddenly looks competitive against Russ Feingold, for example). And although prospects for House Democrats have certainly improved, the most reliable analysts remain skeptical they can win the net 30 seats they need for control. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, for example, estimates that at this point there are only 37 competitive House races, and 6 of those are in seats held by Democrats. And Republican gerrymandering success and superior voter distribution also mean that Democrats could, as they did in 2012, win the national House popular vote and still fall short of a majority of seats.

Pushing back against the possibility of a Democratic wave, congressional Republicans are beginning to encourage Trump-shy Republican swing voters to support the GOP down-ballot in order to “rein in” Hillary Clinton:

A new ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee basically assumes that Hillary Clinton will be president, and makes no mention of Trump.
“While Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi seek rubber stamps like Kim Myers to fast-track their agenda, our security and livelihoods are at risk,” the narrator says in the ad for GOP candidate Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd district.

This “checks and balances” message has been in the hopper as a congressional GOP fallback strategy from the moment it became clear Trump would be at the top of the ticket. It now looks like this option is being exercised, as House Speaker Paul Ryan signaled at the beginning of the week in a conference call with his members wherein he told them to do whatever they needed to survive.

Given the relatively small number of split tickets needed in close congressional races to turn a Trump defeat into a down-ballot GOP victory (or at least a damage mitigation sufficient to keep control of the House and Senate gavels), this strategy could well work, building as it does on the antipathy Republican and independent defectors in the presidential race likely feel toward Hillary Clinton. There will also likely be some “nonpartisan” elite encouragement of ticket-splitting by the usual suspects who imagine the bipartisanship of ancient legend will return if voters keep denying either party total power.

But the irony is that these reluctant Clinton voters who think they are voting for either bipartisanship or a balance of power between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress may be unwittingly ushering in a new era of expanded executive powers.

The odds of bipartisanship breaking out are vanishingly small. Congressional Republicans will have every incentive to treat the results as an aberration attributable to Trump (or, as some will say, to perfidious betrayal of Trump by other Republicans). The 2018 midterms, with their strongly pro-GOP Senate landscape and a likely midterm backlash against an extension of Democratic control of the White House (exacerbated by pro-GOP turnout dynamics in non-presidential elections), will look like a near and safe haven. More than ever, assuming Democrats make some House gains, Paul Ryan will hold his gavel at the sufferance of right-wing backbenchers who would drag the country to the bottom of hell before doing anything that could help make Hillary Clinton successful. And after the bitter experiences of the last eight years, there’s little chance a Clinton White House would take the huge, base-angering steps necessary to meet Republicans far more than halfway.