November 4, 2016 8:00 pm JST
Thomas Wright

Battle lines blurred in US presidential battle

The bombshell Oct. 28 announcement by FBI Director James Comey -- that a newly discovered cache of Hillary Clinton's private emails may be relevant to the bureau's ongoing investigation -- has given Donald Trump a new lease on life in the presidential election.

Trump had been trailing badly in the polls and appeared destined for a crushing defeat. Now, while Clinton still has the edge in the electoral college (the body of electors which directly elects the president) the national polls have narrowed significantly, with the influential ABC News/Washington Post Tracking Poll showing Trump with a one-point lead on Nov. 2.

If Trump wins, it would be the most improbable comeback by any candidate in U.S. history -- not least for Trump himself, who has reportedly slowed down his team's transition efforts to concentrate fully on the election. A Trump victory would in all probability trigger market volatility and geopolitical uncertainty, as the world wondered if he would govern as he campaigned -- as a populist, nationalist demagogue -- or if he would appoint mainstream Republicans to senior positions and moderate his foreign policy.

Trump would surely see his victory as an absolute and complete vindication of his character and personality. It is theoretically possible that at the age of 70, and at the moment of his greatest triumph, he would turn over a new leaf and display a hitherto undiscovered capacity to master complex policy briefs and move to the center; but it is unlikely. Instead, he could double down on his core beliefs, reward those loyal to him, and claim a mandate for his proposed U.S.-Mexican wall, for squeezing America's allies, and for partnering with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Of course, the more probable outcome is a Clinton victory, perhaps by a considerable margin, despite the FBI revelations. Trump is facing scandals of his own, including a renewed focus on ties to Russia. The Trump campaign has no real ground game in the states. Democratic registration and early voting numbers far outstrip those of the Republicans. And, importantly, Trump still fares very badly with minorities and women.

If Clinton wins, it would be the first time since 1988 that a party has won a third consecutive term in the White House, and the first time since 1948 that the Democrats have done so (when they won an unprecedented five in a row with Harry Truman). However, even if Clinton wins by a large margin, she will still fall well short of the 49-state wins achieved by Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon in 1984 and 1972 respectively, and of Lyndon Johnson's 44-state thumping of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Indeed, if Democrats were to sweep the board and regain the Senate and the House of Representatives -- which seems much less likely now than before Comey's Oct. 28 announcement -- they would still only have a tiny majority in each, somewhere between 50 to 52 seats out of 100 in the Senate and a very best-case scenario of a low, single-digit majority in the House.

To put this in perspective, the Democrats gained eight seats in the Senate in 2008 to bring their total to 59, one short of a filibuster-proof majority required to push contentious bills through with a super-majority, and they won 21 seats in the House to increase their majority to 79. So, even if 2016 is catastrophic for the Republicans, they will still end up in a stronger position in Congress than in 2008 or 1992. They will have enough seats to block key White House appointments and could be well positioned to recoup their losses in the 2018 mid-term elections.

It is possible that a chastened Republican leadership may work with Clinton for a while, but it is unlikely. The lesson of the 2016 primaries, when moderate Republican candidates lost out to Trump, is that moderation and cooperation with Democrats do not pay. The path of least resistance will be to return to business as usual and double down on opposition.

An added complication is that Clinton may find herself under pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, led by Senator

Elizabeth Warren. Warren and her allies are focused on personnel choices, not policy promises. They have already circulated lists of individuals they would oppose or support for appointments to high office, particularly in economic posts in the Treasury and the White House. The transition could be dominated by high profile fights among Democrats over the composition of the cabinet.

Priority business

The lame duck session of Congress, which occurs between the election and the inauguration of the new president in late January, may also be full of political landmines. President Barack Obama has promised to seek ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which Clinton has opposed.

He is committed to elevating Merrick Garland, a centrist federal judge, to the Supreme Court, even though many progressives may wish the next president to choose someone younger and more liberal. And he may support a United Nations Security Council resolution on the parameters for Middle East peace, which could incur the wrath of Congress.

If she wins, Clinton must decide whether to weigh in on any or all of these issues, or to simply say there is only one president at a time.

Before taking office Clinton would have to decide on her top domestic legislative priority. It is widely believed that she would have to choose between an infrastructure investment package and an immigration reform bill. Those in favor of an infrastructure bill say it is important to focus on the economy and that immigration reform would run into strong populist headwinds and all-out opposition from the Republicans. Those in favor of an immigration bill argue that bringing 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows would have a positive economic impact that is unlikely to be achieved if the legislation is placed second.

On foreign policy, Clinton would face one of the most challenging geopolitical environments of any president in recent times. Russia has interfered directly in the election by leaking selected emails from hacked accounts, and sees Clinton as an implacable rival. America's

allies and partners in East Asia are expecting a robust response to China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, and worrying about Clinton's opposition to TPP. In the Middle East, the administration would inherit a grave problem in Syria -- whether to establish no-fly zones and safe zones, even if that means clashing with Russian and Syrian forces.

However, foreign policy could also provide Clinton with the opportunity to get her presidency off to a strong start. There is considerable bipartisan agreement on the need for a tougher approach to Russia and China, and on stepping up U.S. engagement in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Clinton's instincts seem to be very much along these lines. She could begin to chart a new course in American foreign policy, equipping the U.S. to get more serious about the emerging geopolitical competition of the 21st century.

Clinton will face an extremely challenging environment, at home and abroad, if and when she becomes president. There would be no honeymoon period. But, any trouble she faces would be a walk in the park compared to the sense of crisis and looming catastrophe that would define a Trump presidency, which would surely plunge the world into uncharted and dangerous waters.

Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and author of the forthcoming book "All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power."

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