Dateline: April 30, 2017, Washington DC, elsewhere in the multiverse
The election of America’s first woman president brought with it an unimaginable amount of chaos and strife. At the end of President Hillary Clinton’s first one hundred days in office, the possibilities for sober governance look farther away than ever—even though the president herself has been a model of restraint and coolness under immense pressure.
People who have tried to say that a hypothetical President Trump would have caused even more insanity are hard-pressed to come up with believable narratives of a country in serious turmoil. Had he won, after all, Trump would surely have grown up and stopped issuing baseless tweets, leaving behind his scorched-earth tactics as he came to appreciate the gravity of his office.
Moreover, Republicans would never have allowed Trump free rein to fill his cabinet with unqualified hacks or to commit impeachable offenses. A unified, bipartisan cadre of public-spirited congressional leaders would have controlled the accidental president. It would have been an odd and uncomfortable four years (or less), but no sober-minded person believes that Trump would have continued to be the unhinged demagogue that he opportunistically portrayed in the campaign. Campaigns end.
In our universe, however, the situation has been barely stable ever since Election Day. Trump, freed from the last vestiges of restraint imposed by being a candidate, immediately followed through on his threat not to accept the results of the election. Republicans, unified in their hatred of the president-elect, quickly decided to try to use Trump’s dangerous antics to gain partisan advantage.
This was especially surprising, because the election results were rather clear-cut. Clinton won by four percentage points in the popular vote, and she won the Electoral College by more than one hundred votes, almost as wide a margin as Barack Obama enjoyed in 2012.
Moreover, Democrats picked up five Senate seats, giving them 51 seats and allowing them to retake the majority, and they cut the Republicans’ lead in the House of Representatives in half. It was not a rout, but it was a clear win for Democrats.
Trump, of course, said that the vote was rigged, and he called for massive resistance to the election results from his infamous “Second Amendment People.” Armed standoffs and brawls in Washington and other major cities led to mass arrests, and individual members of the Electoral College received death threats. For the first time, the Electoral College met in a secret, secure location.
Republican leaders did not openly support Trump’s ultimately failed efforts to incite insurrection. Even so, Senator Mitch McConnell, once again relegated to being the minority leader, immediately argued that Clinton’s victory was tainted, saying that “Although I cannot quite believe that armed resistance is completely necessary right now, I can see the point of the people who do not want this woman—this unindicted criminal!—to be president.”
Although House Republicans voted to replace Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House, the new leadership immediately jumped on McConnell’s bandwagon. Similarly, putative Senate moderates like Lindsey Graham and John McCain joined in to claim that Clinton’s win did not make her a legitimate president.
These Republicans pointed to Clinton’s relatively slim margins of victory in key states like New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. They further said that because Clinton had been predicted to win by as much as ten percent of the popular vote and to amass over 400 electoral votes, the election results somehow amounted to a rejection of Clinton as a candidate.
“The voters were moving away from Clinton for the last month of the campaign, so we should not have to live with her as president for four years,” McConnell said in a joint press conference with Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, as they announced on January 2 that articles of impeachment would be filed against Clinton the next morning.
Trump’s threats to call for mass protests on Inauguration Day were averted when Roger Ailes agreed to run the new Trump TV, financed by Rupert Murdoch. When Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton announced that he would run for president in 2020 as “a Trump Republican,” Trump tweeted that Cotton is “totally my kind of tremendous guy, big brane. Can’t wait to start campaigning with him. I really won. #TrumpInAllButName2020.”
Even with Trump’s formal concession on the morning of Inauguration Day, the presence of armed militias circling the White House and Capitol from November 9 through January 19 cast a pall over the country, lending an eerie air to the impeachment hearings that began two weeks before Clinton took the oath of office.
Since becoming president, Hillary Clinton has been thwarted at every turn. Hoping at least to fill the long-empty Supreme Court vacancy as an immediate priority, Clinton first floated the names of several young-ish federal judges. When Republicans threatened to filibuster any of those potential appointees, Clinton decided to go with Judge Merrick Garland, thinking (as President Obama had thought a year earlier) that nominating a clear centrist who was older than most potential nominees would create bipartisan agreement, especially during these unsettled times.
Instead, McConnell and Senator Susan Collins announced that Clinton should have picked someone more acceptable to Republicans, as a show of good faith from a president who was eager to show that she can reach across the aisle. When McConnell and Collins said, however, that Clinton should nominate someone like Judge Neil Gorsuch—“a Harvard-educated jurist who everyone admits is qualified”—Clinton had had enough.
What happened next is by now well known. Clinton formally nominated Garland, and every Senate Republican immediately announced complete opposition, even going so far as to boycott the hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee. One Democratic Senator, however, deprived the committee of a unanimous vote, saying that “we should learn to work with the Republicans.”
The Democratic leadership pressed forward, hoping to convince nine Republicans to vote for Garland. When none budged, the top three Senate Democrats announced that they were likely to abolish the filibuster if Republicans remained adamant.
Immediately, Republicans staged a faux filibuster, talking in the Senate chamber continuously for a week, even though there was no formal proposal to filibuster. McConnell summarized the Republicans’ position: “The filibuster is central to liberty, and Republicans will never, under any circumstances, consent to have that bulwark of democracy demolished for immediate political advantage. I am frankly stunned that we even have to make this argument.”
At least one commentator noted last year that, even under the best of circumstances, Hillary Clinton would have at most two years to accomplish anything. This was based on the simple arithmetic and geography of the upcoming 2018 midterms, in which Democrats will have to defend 25 seats while Republicans will defend only 8 seats, all but one or two of which are completely safe.
Moreover, it was clear that some of those Democratic senators were going to move away from Clinton almost immediately, especially those who feared being tied to her in their reelection fights in red states. This meant that, even if the White House could keep the Senate in line in the meantime, they would almost surely lose the Senate halfway through Clinton’s first term.
What no one saw coming was the speed with which things turned against Clinton. It began almost immediately after the election, when mainstream media sources began to blame Clinton for being both insufficiently strong and too “bossy” in response to the Trump-led protests.
In addition, The New York Times issued several think pieces in which its political reporters explained why Clinton’s victory was little better than a loss, because voters still do not like or trust her. Two pieces argued that she must immediately move to the right, to prove that she is not a sore winner. The hashtag “DontBePushy” gained popularity among avowedly centrist pundits.
The Times also continued to run stories about Clinton’s emails, and one news article crossed over into commentary by suggesting that Republicans were “not necessarily wrong” to say that FBI Director James Comey should have said that he was willing to issue arrest warrants to Clinton and her advisors in connection with the Anthony Wiener emails in October, even though nothing in those emails was ultimately relevant.
The editorial board of The New York Times surprised everyone when it stated that
Clinton bears her share of the blame for the starkly partisan atmosphere in this country, especially because she insists on investigating Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the election. Like Barack Obama, who graciously chose not to investigate the war crimes of the Bush Administration, Clinton should be the bigger person and put the past behind her.
In such an increasingly unsupportive atmosphere, there was little political capital to lose for Democrats who wanted to stand against Clinton. Despite keeping the party together for key votes on her cabinet (losing only the vote to put an expert on vaccines in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services), the Supreme Court fight led to disaster.
When Clinton appeared with top Senate Democrats to make the case for abolishing the filibuster, it appeared that they had found a way to use sheer numbers against Republicans. They were not surprised when Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota announced that she was going to vote against Garland, and they were not worried because they had secured West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s vote by promising to allow him to run his entire reelection campaign as an anti-Clinton Democrat. Clinton even promised to say bad things about Manchin at press conferences in the months before the election.
The shock came from Senator Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who was narrowly elected in 2016 after having left the same office several years earlier. Even though he will not have to run for reelection until 2022, he announced that he would vote “no” on Garland.
Bayh initially caused a stir by explaining that “I came back to Washington to be effective, and that means siding with Republicans when they are united.” In the face of immediate criticism, he then explained that he merely meant that when Republicans stick together, he felt that he needed to honor their commitment by taking their side.
When that caused further uproar, Bayh acted on his frustration by announcing that he and Heitkamp had decided to caucus with Republicans. “We are not changing our party, because we are proud of being Democrats,” Bayh said. “We just do not want to have to defend positions that Republicans attack.”
Clinton thus faces Republican control of both chambers of Congress, with the prospect of Republican gains in both houses in 2018’s elections. Like the last two years of Obama’s presidency, therefore, Clinton now is trying to figure out how to govern without Congress.
Relying on many of Obama’s experienced advisors, Clinton has already issued a series of bulletproof executive orders expanding rules to mitigate pollution and expanding worker safety regulations and consumer protections. She has also demonstrated her willingness to use the power of the presidency to protect women’s reproductive rights, protecting Planned Parenthood and issuing orders to have the FBI investigate domestic terrorist activity aimed at clinics that provide abortions.
On the international front, Clinton’s troubles at home have not stopped her from scoring significant early successes. She headed off a major confrontation with North Korea by allowing experienced diplomats to work behind the scenes with China, and she has had blunt but productive talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom she has now worked out a framework for ending the Syrian civil war.
Clinton thus seemed to be capable of carrying off an effective presidency, even in the face of Republicans’ unthinking opposition of everything she says and does. Unfortunately, during her first one hundred days, the time bomb known as the debt ceiling once again started ticking.
On March 15, the debt ceiling came back into existence, set at exactly the level of the U.S. debt on that date. This meant that the government immediately had to begin carrying out “extraordinary measures” to prevent the government from a first-ever default on the country’s financial obligations.
Clinton was given a bit of a reprieve, however, because the continuing resolution that Congress passed last year to keep the government running in the absence of an actual full-year budget was set to expire on her 99th day in office, which was yesterday.
The White House pointed out to both parties in Congress that the proposals to extend the continuing resolution through the end of the current fiscal year would require an increase in the debt ceiling, because otherwise we would run out of extraordinary measures and be forced into either an economic crisis, a constitutional crisis, or most likely both.
Clinton thus announced: “The bill that Congress plans to enact will require an additional $300 billion worth of borrowing by September 30. I cannot borrow that money to pay our bills unless Congress increases the statutory debt ceiling. I call on both houses to do so immediately.”
Republicans, joined by several Democrats in both houses, immediately announced that the president was failing to take the national debt seriously. Kellyanne Conway, who left the failed Trump campaign to become spokeswoman for House Republicans, said: “The real question is not whether the president can borrow money without Congress’s authorization. The question is why she refuses to resign in the face of our continuing Benghazi revelations, which are simply shocking.”
Clinton briefly considered announcing that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and that she would accordingly follow the spending and taxing laws that Congress has passed. When told that this would reignite the impeachment proceedings (and that many Democrats would oppose her), no matter that she was right as a matter of law (and logic), she gave up and signed the new spending law that Congress passed a few days earlier.
The clock is thus ticking ever louder. The best estimate is that extraordinary measures will now be exhausted in mid-June, although no one is certain of the exact date. Many Republicans have announced that they will never, ever vote to increase the debt ceiling, saying that Clinton should have to make the unpopular choice to violate the obligations to which the Republican Congress committed the country.
The remaining Republicans have decided that they will use the debt ceiling to try to force Clinton to agree to a series of uncomfortable conditions, including support for a constitutional amendment to repeal Roe v. Wade and a plan to appoint Republicans to half of the cabinet while Clinton remains in office.
Most Democrats oppose those conditions, which creates a problem because Republicans cannot pass the necessary legislation without Democrats, given that they do not have the votes of the Republicans who refuse to increase the debt ceiling. Clinton is reported to be weighing her options.
Based on these first one hundred days in the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton faces the certainty of defeat for her party in 2018 and herself in 2020. After that, Republicans will surely be in charge.
Republican Party leaders are already busily assuring everyone that they have in hand carefully crafted plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reform taxes, address climate change in a responsible fashion, and create a more inclusive political environment.
Paul Ryan, on his last day in office before resigning, had this parting shot:
Although I will not be there, the Republicans will show that we know how to govern. No presidency could be more of a disaster than this one, except maybe if Trump had won. But none of us really supported him anyway. And everyone knows that this is all Clinton’s fault.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.
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