Will Hillary Face Bill's Mandate Problem?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking at a rally at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, Fla., M
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking at a rally at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It has been an extraordinary two weeks on the presidential campaign trail, but then again that statement could have been uttered pretty much at any point during the past year and still have been just as true. This time around, I'm referring to Donald Trump obviously starting to consider the possibility that he's going to lose the general election. He never used to talk about (or even acknowledge) this possibility before now, but all his dismal post-convention polling may have forced him to begin to think about it.

Currently Trump is being slammed for his "dog whistle" to Second Amendment enthusiasts, which intimated that perhaps assassinating federal judges or Hillary Clinton might be a desired reaction to her presidency. This isn't the first time this particular dog whistle has been blown by Republican candidates, although they usually phrase it as "Second Amendment remedies" (which sounds so much nicer than "waging civil war against the United States of America," doesn't it?). I've said it before (about Hillary Clinton, back in 2008, actually) and I'll say it again: politicians should never even hint at political assassination being any sort of realistic option. Just don't do it. It's beyond "playing with fire" -- it is downright dangerous and irresponsible to even talk about the subject.

But at the same time, I think this'll blow over in the same way almost all of Trump's off-the-cuff remarks have already blown over. What I thought was an even more dangerous and irresponsible remark was Trump talking about how the entire election is obviously going to be "rigged" if he doesn't win. It was an open invitation for all his followers to see Hillary Clinton as an illegitimate president, should she win. What would millions of Trump voters actually do if they thought the election had been stolen away from them -- and Trump was loudly egging them on? That's a question that is going to get a lot more attention as the election draws nearer -- that's my guess, at any rate.

But again, I'm going to set all that aside for the moment. I'm even going to ignore Donald Trump in the equation. Because if Clinton does win, Trump will fade away on the political scene, much like Sarah Palin has (finally) done. What I've been wondering -- for far longer than the past few weeks -- is whether Hillary Clinton will face the same headwinds that her husband faced when he won the presidency. Will she be hounded by the accusation that she doesn't have a true "mandate" from the people?

Bill Clinton faced this problem twice, because in neither 1992 nor 1996 did he manage to win at least 50 percent of the popular vote. Remember, H. Ross Perot took close to 20 percent in the first one and almost 10 percent in the second one, so winning 50 percent was not necessary to win the race. This year, there are two third-party candidates who are polling much stronger than third parties normally do. Whether people will actually vote for them is an open question (often third parties poll a whole lot better than they manage to do in the actual election). But it's pretty easy to see that Hillary Clinton might win the race but fail to reach 50 percent of the popular vote.

All along I've been saying that Hillary's campaign has been peddling one particular fantasy to her supporters, the idea that she will "get things done" because she'll be so much better at "working with Congress" than that pie-in-the-sky dreamer Bernie Sanders (or, now, Donald Trump). She paints the picture of congressional compromise in glowing colors, and for the most part her supporters seem to believe it could become reality. I don't, to put it mildly.

Who really thinks the Republicans in Congress are going to start working in good faith with President Hillary Clinton to get anything done? I'm not saying that Bernie Sanders would have been any better at this, mind you -- I've always thought that any Democratic president will face exactly the same hostility from Republicans that Barack Obama has had to deal with from his first day in office. Who really believes that Hillary Clinton will be seen in a more positive light by all the Tea Partiers and their Republican enablers in both the House and Senate? "Gosh, we certainly gave Barack Obama a hard time," they're all supposed to suddenly realize, "so let's show President Clinton how much we can get done together!" As I said, this is pure fantasy.

Those on the right simply hate it whenever any Democrat occupies the Oval Office. Period. Plain and simple. They have hated all eight years of Barack Obama, and they hated (with a white-hot passion) all eight years of Bill Clinton. They're going to hate Hillary Clinton in the White House just as fervently. The only way out of this problem is for Democrats to win control of the House and rack up a 60-vote majority in the Senate. The first of those might actually happen this November, but the second is completely out of reach. So Hillary will face -- at least -- the same unending Senate filibuster votes that Obama has had to deal with. And if the House remains in Republican hands, it may be almost impossible for Clinton to move much of her agenda forward at all.

Now, I realize that making political promises (or even just painting gauzy pictures of the future) on the campaign trail is a normal part of politics. But I do wonder whether Clinton herself believes that she'll be able to get things done by sitting down with the congressional Republicans. It's one thing to radiate optimism in a political rally, but it's another for the candidate to actually firmly believe something that probably won't turn out to be true. Clinton may be remembering her own stint in the Senate, which was before the Tea Party wave happened. Things did occasionally get done, back when Clinton was representing New York in the Senate. The two parties did occasionally reach compromises. But things have changed. I do hope Hillary Clinton knows this, to put it another way.

Clinton will face hostility from congressional Republicans, whether they hold either chamber or not. If Democrats hold the House, then the GOP minority there can safely be ignored. But even if Democrats also hold the Senate, Republicans will still be able to filibuster everything under the sun. In fact, the next session of the Senate might start off with a gigantic fight, if the lame-duck session doesn't confirm Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton could spend her first day in office announcing her new nominee to the court, which would mean it'd be the first piece of business the Senate took up.

Now, back when Harry Reid "dropped the nuke" by changing Senate rules so that federal judge confirmations couldn't be filibustered any more, he left the filibuster intact for the Supreme Court. But with a new Senate convening next January, they could very easily chuck that rule out too, on their first day in office. Meaning if Democrats hold the chamber, Hillary Clinton's nominee would soon be on the high court. Think that's going to put Republicans in a compromising mood on Capitol Hill? I don't. Especially since I remember how they screamed when Reid chose the "nuclear option" in the first place -- which didn't even involve the Supreme Court.

Even without all this speculation on what Congress will look like (and do) next January, though, Hillary Clinton may still face the headwinds of the media deciding she "doesn't have a mandate from the people." If Hillary Clinton wins, Donald Trump has already signaled that he's going to do everything he can to delegitimize her victory. Rantings about "rigged elections" likely won't last long, but if Clinton fails to attain a majority of the popular vote, the line from Republicans will quickly become: "Over half the voters didn't vote for Hillary."

Bill Clinton worked through this problem twice, and Hillary can work through it as well. Interestingly enough, when George W. Bush was confronted with his own lack of a mandate, his response was essentially that he was now president and that was all the mandate he needed, thank you very much. Once he brushed the question off in such fashion, it was rarely ever asked again. So this doesn't have to be an insurmountable problem for any president.

What Hillary Clinton doesn't clearly express when telling her supporters that she knows how to get things done with Congress is that it is an implied knock on Barack Obama. This is entirely deserved, as Obama has never shown any enthusiasm for courting even members of his own party. He doesn't do all the glad-handling and cocktail hours that previous presidents have used to get influential members of Congress on their side. And that's just within his own party. Hillary Clinton will doubtlessly be a lot more attentive to such things. She knows all about the congressional meet-and-greet events that can help a sitting president. In fact, she'll have someone handy who is quite good at it, so perhaps Bill will be given the job of "Congressional Schmoozer-In-Chief" -- a job he'd likely both enjoy and be quite good at.

So it really remains to be seen how much of a hurdle the accusation that Hillary Clinton "didn't win a mandate" will be. Republicans are already chomping at the bit to delegitimize Clinton in any way possible, so it should come as no surprise to anyone if this ramps up to fever pitch after Election Day. Hillary Clinton should be ready for this to happen, because if she does win it is likely to become inevitable.

 

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