In a year like 2017, it is probably a good thing for Democrats to maintain some perspective on what continues to feel like the baleful consequences of a presidential election that went horribly wrong. Whether or not the election of Donald J. Trump was due to the mistakes of Democrats, the intervention of Russian hackers, media distortions of the news and the issues, or just bad luck, it has depressed and/or frightened many millions of people, and made others long for the Hillary Clinton presidency that might have been.
But it is worth remembering that a Hillary Clinton presidency would hardly have been a walk in the park. Indeed, you can make a pretty good case that aside from the ever-present possibility that we will awaken to some sudden presidential decision far more distressing than a poorly written tweet, the actual facts on the ground in Washington might not be completely different had the small group of Rust Belt voters who lifted Trump to the White house changed their minds or stayed at home.
Five months into the Trump presidency, his legislative accomplishments (other than ratifying the predictable reversal of very late regulations issued by Obama) are virtually nil. That would change, of course, if Congress passes the American Health Care Act — but the bill might go off the rails yet. In any case, a President HRC facing a Republican Congress would have almost certainly had the same dismal five-month legislative record.
Trump has proposed a draconian budget that he cannot enact without Democratic votes. Clinton would have proposed a much more generous budget that she would not have been able to enact without Republican votes. The odds of fiscal gridlock, a government shutdown, or a debt default would have been roughly the same with a Democratic president. The same Federal Reserve Board would have been shepherding the economy, subject to the same global trends.
The 45th president and his closest associates are under constant scrutiny and investigation. If the 45th president’s name had been Clinton, she, too would be under constant scrutiny and investigation, though probably from Congress exclusively rather than Congress and the FBI and a special counsel.
The one very tangible counterfactual difference between a Trump and Clinton presidency is that in the latter there would be no Justice Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But there might not be a new progressive Justice, either, given the vows of many Republicans to block her from placing anyone on the Court. Certainly the names of lower federal court nominees would be different, but then again, a President Clinton would not have been in a position to impose her own judges on a Republican Senate, or secure a “nuclear option” to make their ratification easier.
However you weigh the differences between the real and the alternative 2017 at this point, one thing is very sure: The short-term electoral prospects for both parties would be very different. Since midterm elections almost always cut against the party controlling the White House (a tendency that grows stronger when that party has been in control for an extended time), it is very unlikely we’d be talking about a Democratic “wave” election in 2018, or of a Democratic House as a realistic goal. Instead, we’d probably be talking about the odds of Republicans getting to a supermajority of 60 seats in the Senate. They have the landscape for it, and absent the kind of anti–White House factor that has Republicans worried today, they’d probably have no reason to fear significant House losses.
More immediately, it’s a lead-pipe cinch the whole political world would not be obsessing over a special election in the Sixth District of Georgia right now. Instead of four special elections (and another one in Alabama later this year) in Republican districts caused by Donald Trump hiring their incumbent members, we’d probably have a different special election landscape. Since congressional Democrats are relatively well concentrated in urban areas, and any Clinton Cabinet would have been far more diverse than Trump’s, the odds are high any vacancies would have been in heavily Democratic districts with sizable minority voting blocs. There might well be no competitive special elections at all. Even if they did exist, they would not feature Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel and Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist. Ben Jacobs would probably still have his glasses.
It’s much harder to game out what the mood would be like in the two parties had Clinton won. There would be no Democratic “resistance,” and while restive populists would be watching HRC closely, at this point there’s no reason to think Democrats would not have remained relatively united. Who knows what Donald Trump would have done in defeat? It is clearer that the many, many Republicans who opposed him or kept him at a distance until he won would have by now exerted enormous energy in trying to elbow him into retirement, preempt his message, and win over his following.
In any event, it is useful to reflect on the things that might have been, yet might not have been all that different from our real-life 2017, along with the things that might have turned the world upside down. You will never be able to convince the passionate people who cheered or wept on the night of November 8, 2016, that the turn of events we all witnessed were not fateful for the republic. But over time, it may all balance out — especially if the “glass ceiling” HRC has tried so hard to break is finally shattered soon, as in 2020.