Given the vast ideological gulf between the parties right now, their ability to work across party lines to pass budgets and other bills is greatly attenuated.
By Seth Masket
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz participate in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
It may be hard to believe, but someday this presidential election will be over. One way or another, a new president will be inaugurated next January. Will he or she be able to govern, no less enact the agenda he or she ran on?
This was the subject of the final panel discussion at the Travers Conference on Ethics & Accountability in Government, held last week at the University of California-Berkeley. Political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Hans Noel joined New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza to discuss the prospects for governance after the 2016 election. Berkeley political scientist Sean Gailmard moderated.
The panelists were not particularly bullish on those prospects—Lawless repeatedly called them crummy. But they nonetheless assessed presidential governing prospects across the four candidates most likely to win: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton.
In a strange way, a President Trump might be in the best position to get things done, as he’s the most ideologically centrist of the candidates running.
Neither Trump nor Sanders, the panelists noted, have expressed much interest in the mechanics of government. Trump, Noel noted, has one main policy goal—a 1,000-mile wall, the construction of which would be logistically daunting and the financing of which is probably illegal. He has expressed little interest in much else, other than vague goals of winning more and losing less. Sanders, meanwhile, has largely set out general goals of greater economic equality, less corporate influence, free higher education, and an expanded social safety net, with little focus on how such achievements would be realized. Much of his career in Congress has been spent decrying social problems rather than crafting successful legislation.
Cruz has expressed somewhat more interest in the policymaking process during his few years in the Senate, although that clearly hasn’t been his main focus so far; perhaps his biggest policy achievement has been a government shutdown. And quite a few of his Senate colleagues simply do not like him. But he seems to have some sort of a governing agenda and, as Noel notes, is far less of an outsider than is generally perceived.
Of the four, Clinton has demonstrated the greatest aptitude for policymaking, and even engaged in some bipartisan statecraft when she was in the Senate. And given the current dynamics of the race, her election seems like the most likely outcome.
But another key factor weighs over the election: split party control. As Lizza noted, given the vast ideological gulf between the parties right now, their ability to work across party lines to pass budgets and other bills is greatly attenuated. To be sure, some suggest that a president with a strong personality and a commanding majority from the electorate could bend the other party to his or her will. But history suggests that’s not how it works. Notably, President Barack Obama has had very little success getting much through the Congress with the exception of the nine months in 2009 and 2010 when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and 60 Senate seats.
Should Clinton win, there’s a decent chance she would enter office with a Democratic Senate, giving her some ability to place judges on federal courts. (The filibuster is probably not long for this world.) It’s not impossible Democrats could take the House as well, but it’s pretty improbable, meaning Clinton would still need to work with a Republican-led chamber to get anything done. In case you’ve missed the past quarter-century, Republicans do not like her, and the feeling appears to be mutual.
Now, these divisions go far beyond personality clashes. Pretty much any Democratic president would find his or her agenda thwarted when dealing with a Republican-led House, and much the same would befall a similarly situated Republican president.
Indeed, in a strange way, a President Trump might be in the best position to get things done, as he’s the most ideologically centrist of the candidates running and shares some of the core beliefs of both parties. Conversely, he may be particularly gifted at getting both parties to turn against him, which would technically increase bipartisanship but not really in a way that advances his agenda.
The other option for productivity is for someone like Ted Cruz to take office with Republican control of both chambers of Congress. Then you’ll likely see substantial activity on things like repealing the Affordable Care Act, lowering the tax burden for upper income Americans, and other conservative priorities.
Overall, though, the prospects for a truly productive 115th Congress that works well with the White House are bleak at best. The president and congressional leaders will have to come up with some creative solutions to complete even the most basic tasks of governing.