October 28, 2016 11:45 pm JST
Thomas Wright

No honeymoon if Clinton wins

After a tumultuous, volatile and surprising 18-month campaign, the American presidential election finally appears to be on a predictable path.

Key national and state polls were still putting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton solidly ahead of her Republican rival Donald Trump on Oct. 28, with 11 days to go before the Nov. 8 election. An ABC News opinion poll, taken after the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19, had Clinton opening a double-digit lead over Trump. The margin was unusually high, but the poll was not a fluke. Five Thirty Eight, a website owned and run by political statistician Nate Silver, forecast that Clinton had an 86% chance of winning on Nov. 8. Of course, normal caveats apply. Anything could happen, and opinion polls have been proven wrong before. But, barring an upset without precedent in history, Clinton will be the next president of the United States.

If so, 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). It is hard to think of a candidate less qualified for office than Trump, or one who has run such a poor campaign. However, while Clinton may win 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.

Democrats are now favored to win the Senate, and may even take the House of Representatives, but here, too, some caution is in order. The Democrats' very best case scenario for the Senate is 54 seats, which would require a sweep of the six most contested "battleground" states -- those where both the Republicans and the Democrats have a chance of winning. In the House, Democrats would be doing extremely well to have a majority in the low single digits.

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, and they won 21 seats in the House to increase their majority to 79. So, even if Democrats sweep the board on Nov. 8, they will not enjoy unusually large majorities. 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 filibuster the White House and to block key appointments. They will be well positioned to recoup their losses in the mid-term elections of 2018.

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 or the White House. The transition could be dominated by high profile fights among Democrats over the composition of the cabinet.

Top priority

The lame duck session of Congress, which occurs between the election and the inauguration of the newly elected president in 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 that 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 meant 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 increasing American 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. She usually performs well under pressure, so it may matter less than for other new presidents. But, there is no doubt that she would need to hit the ground running.

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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