But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.
Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.
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Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.
Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.
Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.
It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.
But it’s a rare opportunity, nonetheless, if she can.
In Germany, Merkel has been a stoic and cautious conservative chancellor for three consecutive terms, as you might expect from the leader of the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party). But she’s also proven willing to find common ground with the left. Notably, after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, Merkel announced the phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany, a top priority for the opposition Green Party. After her most recent reelection, Merkel approved the country’s first minimum wage, a top priority of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).
Though Merkel’s SPD predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed through a series of painful labor market reforms that neoliberals cheered, he also waged an intense campaign against Merkel in 2005 that, in its final days, nearly overtook Merkel’s lead. While Schröder is certainly no Trump, it would have been impossible to imagine him holding hands with Merkel in the kind of CDU-SPD partnership that’s marked two of Merkel’s three terms as chancellor.
As a result, Merkel dominates German politics in a way that supersedes traditional ideology.
Merkel’s approach, however, hasn’t been without risks. She reluctantly embraced policies at the European level, including several bailouts for Greece, that are incredibly unpopular, especially among her own center-right constituency, including many of her Bavarian allies. The same holds true for her embrace, last year, of 1.1 million refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Her ideological shape-shifting has allowed a new, more stridently right-wing party to emerge in the form of the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany).
Still, with new elections approaching in 2017, no one doubts that Merkel is by far the favorite to win a fourth term as chancellor.
In the same way, that Clinton could run an administration that generally pursues center-left priorities, while working with moderate Republicans from time to time in ways that Obama has been unable to pursue. It’s not impossible to imagine the kind of ‘grand bargain’ on economic policy that Obama once imagined he could negotiate with former House speaker John Boehner. Democrats might win higher income taxes on the most wealthy Americans, eliminating finance-friendly loopholes and rebuilding infrastructure, while Republicans might win a path to reducing the national debt, reducing headline corporate tax rates and implementing other reforms.
There’s nothing stopping Clinton from appointing an activist treasury secretary to satisfy the supporters of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and a progressive attorney general in the mould of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. She seems certain to continue the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to executive action in the face of Congressional inaction, and she will appoint judicial nominees that the American left will cheer. She will continue to wage the difficult fight for gun control measures and comprehensive action on climate change. But it’s conceivable that she might also nominate a handful of moderate Republicans to her administration as well. They might include experienced hands like Robert Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, or even politicians like John Kasich, the popular two-term Ohio governor who recently ended his quixotic presidential bid.
Clinton could promote progressive policies like universal parental leave, but she might win over moderates and even evangelical conservatives through savvy messaging as a step toward promoting stronger families and equalizing individual opportunity. From the beginning of her campaign, Clinton has promoted the kind of criminal justice reforms that unite a coalition that features Black Lives Matter activists alongside libertarians mistrustful of police abuse and government overreach.
A Clinton administration could also work with moderate Republicans and Democrats to pass the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that stymied both the Bush and Obama administration. A majority of American voters generally approve of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Republicans desperately need to widen their demographic appeal.
Clinton could also be expected to champion a revamped version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or, even better, prioritize the long-delayed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement with the European Union that might actually toughen consumer protection, privacy and environmental standards in the United States while advancing freer trade, a long-term goal of both moderate Republicans and Democrats.
It’s Clinton, not Obama, who has the longer record of bipartisanship, stretching back to her days as the senator from New York in the 2000s and as secretary of state under Obama. She’s already more hawkish on international affairs than Obama and many of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, and it was Bill Clinton himself who pioneered the strategy of ‘triangulation’ that pitted his own Southern, third-way centrism as a midpoint between resurgent conservative Republicans and congressional Democrats.
No one is suggesting that Clinton can — or would — make the kind of center-right pivot that her husband made in the 1990s. That would alienate much of what has become today’s Democrats, whose policy preferences lean significantly to the left of the Democratic Party of the 1990s. Her own ‘triangulation’ would prove the worst suspicions of the party’s leftists, including many young Democrats, in particular, who support Sanders.
But in a world where the Republican Party disintegrates in a Trumpista defeat, there’s no reason why Clinton can’t ‘pull a Merkel’ — and if she wants to win reelection and a rare fourth consecutive White House term, it might be the smartest path for her in 2016 and beyond.