Democrats hope to win the election in November. By that, they usually mean win the US presidential election — though they also have high hopes of securing a majority in the Senate. If it’s an especially good year for Democrats, they might pick up a bunch of House seats, too.
The biggest question, however, is whether they can take back the House as well. That would be extremely difficult but isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Before the Republican convention in Cleveland they were up 6 points nationally, the sort of landslide that would likely be needed. It’s conceivable that they could get back in that range if they secure a strong post-convention bounce out of Philadelphia.
That raises the question of what, exactly, Democrats would do if they manage to pull off a sweeping victory in November. And the answer, based on days’ worth of reporting in the target-rich environment of legislators, lobbyists, and activists in Philadelphia, is that they really have no idea.
The idea of a congressional majority has seemed so implausible for so long that the groundwork hasn’t really been laid for what to do with one. And the problem isn’t that Hillary Clinton lacks policy proposals. If anything, she has too many. Legislating requires both the setting of priorities and the asking of tough questions about what the party’s more vulnerable and electorally moderate members will support.
Granted, there’s a long time between July and November, so it’s not too late for Democrats to devise a plan here. It just hasn’t happened yet. Here’s a look at some of the big choices the party might face in the event of a big victory this fall.
1) What should Congress do about Merrick Garland?
The most immediate question Democrats will face if they win the White House and Senate will be what to do about the Supreme Court vacancy that’s been lingering since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
If Clinton wins in November, she could conceivably press the Senate to quickly confirm Merrick Garland, whose nomination is still pending. And Senate Republicans, who will maintain a majority until at least January, seem likely to oblige in that scenario. Garland is a relatively moderate justice who was widely praised by Republicans in the past. Key GOP senators have rested the case for blocking him on the “principle” that it would be wrong to fill the vacancy in an election year. If Clinton wins the election, that rationale goes away. Plus, he’s likely the best nominee they’ll get.
But if Democrats secure a Senate majority in November, there will be pressure on Clinton to appoint her own, more progressive choice. Garland is, in particular, moderate on criminal justice issues. Clinton has campaigned as a champion of criminal justice reform and will owe her presidency to people of color. Red state senators would probably prefer an uncontroversial nominee, but progressives may see it as a betrayal to not use this opportunity to confirm a bold nominee.
2) Should Democrats prioritize immigration or infrastructure?
Immigration reform advocates were essentially told in 2009 that Obama was with them, but their priority would have to go to the back of the line behind health care, climate change, and urgent matters related to the economic recovery and financial regulation. They feel they are owed the first bite at the apple in the event that Democrats take back Congress this time around, and many in the party are inclined to agree.
Importantly, several of the party’s leading economic policy thinkers believe an immigration reform along the lines of the old Gang of 8 bill is far and away the biggest feasible thing that could be done to raise the country’s economic growth prospects.
But while asking immigrants to wait once again would be a tough sell, there’s another school of thought that says a boost in infrastructure spending should be the priority. And many Democrats holding Republican-leaning House seats (in this scenario, there would likely be a fair number of them) would probably be more comfortable with an infrastructure bill than an immigration one. And depending on how Republicans view the fallout from the Trump campaign, an infrastructure bill could have a lot more bipartisan appeal than an immigration one.
3) If Democrats do push infrastructure, how would they pay for it?
Hillary Clinton has outlined a fairly ambitious and detailed infrastructure program that seems like it could command reasonably broad support in Congress. The plan says the infrastructure investments would be paid for out of revenue derived from business tax reform.
But this could mean a range of things, some of which are direct opposites of each other:
- Liberals and the Obama administration favor revenue-positive corporate tax reform in which there would be a small reduction in tax rates that is more than paid for by loophole closing. That would generate revenue that could be used to pay for infrastructure investments.
- Business leaders and some Democrats favor a tax repatriation holiday in which profits currently stashed abroad to avoid taxation could be brought back home and paid out as dividends without being subject to the full 35 percent corporate tax rate. This would generate a short-term boost of revenue that could be used to pay for infrastructure, probably at the cost of reducing long-term tax revenue.
- There is also a third option of simply not paying for new infrastructure. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has been pushing this idea, and it would be music to the ears of many liberal intellectuals who for years now have been frustrated with Democrats’ reluctance to make the case for Keynesian fiscal stimulus.
4) Should Democrats push a $15-an-hour minimum wage?
Both Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party platform have embraced the idea of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — a reflection of the raw political power that advocates have wielded in this area.
But that doesn’t mean they’d actually push it if they did retake Congress. A number of experts whom Democratic politicians continue to rely on for policy advice remain deeply uncomfortable with this idea.
Alan Krueger, a former Obama administration official and the author of some of the pioneering research that made the case for a higher minimum wage, has spoken out on his view that $15 an hour is too high. Many people in the liberal policy world won’t talk about this on the record, preferring to complain quietly to wonky journalists instead. They have been comforting themselves with the thought that, in practice, it’s unlikely Democrats will get the majority they would need to do this.
If Democrats do win Congress, they may end up trying to wriggle out of pushing for a minimum wage that high (most likely with more conservative senators like Joe Manchin at the forefront of opposition). But that still leaves the question of what Democrats might do instead — since party support for some kind of hike in the wage floor is broad.
Republicans may be the ultimate deciders
Of course, the picture is completely different if Democrats make gains in November but the GOP continues to hold at least the House. Right now, that seems most likely.
In that case, the biggest question will be how Republicans react to this defeat. After Obama’s victory in 2008, his transition team assumed a chastened GOP would be ready to cut some deals. After Obama’s reelection in 2012, his staff no longer assumed Republicans would cut deals, but they were at least optimistic. In both cases, they were wrong.
This time around, Democrats have a very different attitude. Many of the Democrats I spoke to suspect that Trump’s loss won’t actually chasten the right wing of the Republican Party — instead, they’ll just blame the loss on Trump being insufficiently conservative and continue to oppose nearly everything Democrats put forward.
In that scenario, Clinton would govern largely via the executive branch’s regulatory powers. Liberal and moderate groups are already preparing themselves for a fierce fight over appointments, with Elizabeth Warren working the phrase “personnel is policy” into more and more speeches.
In this gridlocked scenario, the fact that Democrats don’t currently have a concrete, agreed-upon legislative wish list will end up being moot. But if Democrats end up doing better than expected — and unexpectedly find themselves in a position to pass legislation — then there’s the possibility that the lack of proper preparation could turn Clinton’s first year into a big missed opportunity.