Should Hillary Want Democrats to Lose the Senate?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 27 2014 10:57 AM

Should Hillary Want Democrats to Lose the Senate?

477131531-former-united-states-secretary-of-state-hillary-clinton
Jeerleader?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Twitter, where most good ideas come from these days, I suggested that someone (not me) adapt to the current conventional wisdom that Democrats will lose the Senate by arguing that this would be good for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. To my surprise, the idea had early takers.

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The problem is that I don't agree with my own #slatepitch. Briefly, the argument that a Republican Senate in 2015 would boost Hillary Clinton's chances assumes three things.

- The new GOP Congress would be unable to keep a lid on itself. On day one you'd see a Benghazi select committee (which, the theory goes, would diffuse the scandal with overcoverage) and a fight to repeal the ACA. Republicans like John Cornyn and Jim Jordan, people in positions of power, have said that a Republican Congress would hand Obama a budget that defunded Obamacare, on the theory that winning an election and passing the thing in both houses would fatally weaken his hand.

- Clinton would get to run against Congress. "It would be much harder to diffuse blame for a 'Do-Nothing Congress,' " argues Norm Ornstein. Republican presidential candidates would have to triangulate between Clinton and their own Congress, as George W. Bush did in 2000. (That was sort of the point of "compassionate conservatism.")

- Democratic voters, who are horribly lazy about midterm voting, would be newly energized to take back what was lost. Democratic fundraising for Clinton and the 2016 Democratic Senate team would surge—useful, because Democrats want to win seats lost in the 2010 wave, in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

None of this is entirely wrong, but the Clinton optimists assume too much about how voters decide. And they don't worry enough about what a Congress can do.

- If a Republican Congress forced another showdown with a weakened, defeated Barack Obama, how interested would it be in stimulus spending? Health care funding? If you just assume that the Ryan budgets would pass both Houses, and you assume eventually both sides give up on Medicare vouchers and Obamacare repeal (for the short term), you've got a policy that leads to slower growth and voters paying higher health care premiums. Just the uncertainty that would face ensurers as the Congress debated Obamacare repeal—and the elimination of their subsidies—might raise costs. It's hard to see how a situation in which more people led worse lives would be good for the president's preferred successor.

- Let's assume it doesn't matter if a new Supreme Court nomination happens and the Senate contains 51 Democrats or 51 Republicans. Last year's filibuster reforms did not lower the vote threshold for SCOTUS nominees, but there's no precedent for filibustering Supreme Court nominees anyway. That's not a problem for Democrats. The problem would be a blockade on less-famous nominees for all manner of DOJ, EPA, and Treasury, etc., nominees. It doesn't advantage Hillary Clinton's vote-getting in swing states if, come 2016, the Democrats are unable to staff up the Civil Rights Division of DOJ. If the administration can't get its nominees in place, it's going to exercise more executive power. Voters don't always like that—and that's before a Republican Congress and presidential field calls it tyranny and demands to know whether Hillary Clinton would behave this way.

tl;dr version of what I just wrote: Hey, it didn't help Al Gore or John McCain any when their parties lost the Congress. (George H.W. Bush did win in 1988 after his party lost the Senate and shrunk its minority in the House.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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