Our Political Future

J. Sam Williams with Bob Shire

Bob and I emailed this past week to discuss the United States political future, covering the Presidency, the FBI, and the importance of Congress. 


1.       If Mr. Donald Trump wins, what changes do you think we can expect in Politics?

First and foremost, the Republican Party will have to grapple with its identity. If Mr. Trump’s model is successful, then the Party will have to determine whether it is going to be a nationalist, populist, anti-elite party, whether it will continue to promote the interests of business elites and religious conservatives, or if it is big enough to house both? The last option would stretch the “big tent” Republican Party officials have indicated they would like to be (and have to be to compete with the Democrats), and it may not be feasible. If Mr. Trump wants to convert the Republican Party into a more permanent vessel for his populist and nationalist politics, he may have to contend with some sizable forces, such as the business community, the Speaker of the House, and his own Vice President.

The manner in which the Republican Party resolves this tension, and if it is resolved, will likely drive other subsequent changes in politics. The Republican Party successfully absorbed most of the Tea Party movement into its base in the medium-term, but it did dramatically change the way the Party behaved, especially in the House of Representatives. Mr. Trump may have galvanized a similarly difficult force (undoubtedly populated by some of the same people) to absorb into the GOP’s existing framework.

a.       Do you think there will be dramatic changes to the way we govern?

If you are asking whether President Trump would overthrow, scrap, or otherwise dramatically alter existing institutions, I would say no and yes. I do not foresee changes to the Constitution ceding him more power, or an erosion of Legislative authority over lawmaking (beyond the normal recent trend toward ceding, either through choice or inaction, power to the President) relative to Executive power. Those institutions are relatively strong, and Mr. Trump is not nearly a popular or convincing enough figure to enough of the population to garner the popular will needed to collect that much power. Of course, just because I do not foresee it does not mean it could not happen; it seems very unlikely, however, that such tenants of our system of government would be that radically reformed.

On the other hand, there are many institutions and traditions associated with the Presidency which are unwritten or are simply convention or courtesy. These involve exercises of soft power, diplomatic events, interactions with Congress, press conferences, and other informal requirements and constraints. I expect Mr. Trump would, relative to other recent presidents, be keenly disinterested in conforming to these institutions and traditions if he did not see them as helpful or enjoy their execution.

b.       How do you think Trump will handle foreign policy

From the vantage point of diplomacy, not well, unless he outsources it to a more disciplined and scripted Vice President or Secretary of State. His propensity to use hyperbolic language and be careless with his words suggests that foreign governments and populations would have to apply a new set of standards to U.S. foreign policy rhetoric. Remember, choosing to use one otherwise seemingly synonymous word with another in foreign relations can lead to dramatic shifts in attitudes and resources; while shaking up this status quo may be valuable and lead to some desirable changes in thinking, Mr. Trump has not exhibited a proclivity for carefully choosing his words and, when chosen, executing his delivery according to plan. I am also skeptical his experience with foreign business dealings has adequately prepared him to negotiate with other countries on a government-to-government level about a wide array of issues. That being said, many past presidents have had very limited foreign policy experience and were considered successful presidents by the end of their tenure.

c.       What domestic policy do you think Trump will handle

I expect a President Trump to prioritize infrastructure spending. Not only does he have a personal taste of building impressive things, but it is probably his least controversial policy point and it appeals to the business wing of the Republican Party and to some Democrats. Additionally, it is a very visible change in people’s everyday lives and an economic boost. If he does not address his declared plans for undocumented immigrants relatively quickly, however, I would anticipate some wrath from some of his supporters.

As with his foreign policy, Mr. Trump may also outsource significant portions of his domestic policy to Vice President Mike Pence.

d.       What is the future of our country with President Trump at the helm?

This future depends on how the Republican Party positions itself over the medium-term and the long-term relative to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump will not likely serve more than one term, thanks to his low popularity, or he may be impeached.

2.       Same questions for Secretary Hilary Clinton

While it may be far less of an acute problem for the Democrats than it would be for the Republicans under a Trump Presidency, Democrats under a Clinton Presidency would have to grapple with their Left-wing, social democratic contingents. President Clinton would be very cognizant of her own vulnerability for re-election; I expect polls coming out before she is even inaugurated showing her trailing Paul Ryan or John Kasich in the 2020 general election. Those polls may be completely meaningless in reality, but they will feed a narrative that shapes the way the Clinton Presidency operates. She is already a cautious leader; the political Left, some of which is disappointed with the amount President Obama has been able to accomplish, will likely not sit as quietly as they did for President Obama while President Clinton struggles with Congress and gains little ground. The Democratic Party might take solace in the prospect of the Republicans grappling with the Trump loss and the ramifications of Mr. Trump’s relative success, including the likely debut of Trump TV as a challenge to Fox News from the anti-establishment Right, to their own political identities.

Regarding changes to the ways in which we govern and foreign policy, I expect President Clinton would provide a great deal of continuity. Considering her familiarity with the administrations of two of the last three presidents, and her respect for processes and norms, I do not foresee any dramatic changes. She may be more amenable to working with a Republican Congress, as the House will likely stay in Republican hands, than the Obama Administration was. President Clinton may express more willingness to tackle with Republican legislators behind the scenes and make deals than President Obama did. Whether this difference is manifested in the first term will have a profound impact on domestic policy.

I think Hillary Clinton will tackle immigration reform first, especially if the narrative is that Latino and Latina voters put her over the top relative to Mr. Trump. She will want to solidify the Democratic Party’s perception advantage with that group.

As for the future, the Republicans will likely be united in their opposition to Hillary Clinton; such things happen when your party nominee calls his opponent “the Devil” in a debate. I expect President Clinton to only serve one term as well, at this point, unless the Republican Party truly does not resolve its internal tensions.

3.       How important do you think it will be for Congress to be the same “color” as the President. Let me put it differently. Do you think there will be much progress on issues if the House and Senate are Republican but the President is a Democrat? And vice versa

Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly important. I think both of these potential Presidents would have problems with Congress, and while the problems may be much more conventional under a Clinton Presidency, I think it may be a toss-up as to who gets more completed. Mrs. Clinton’s experience in Washington helps her here, but Mr. Trump’s zeal for making deals, especially given his apparent lack of deep-seeded policy convictions on many issues, may lead to a greater volume of legislation, even with Democrats.

a.       Senator McCain said the Republicans will band together to block all of Clinton’s Supreme Court Nominations. Do you think this is wise? Fair? Or does it only add to the Washington’s party first mentality, rather than moving forward on issues.

I do not think this is wise. A functioning judicial branch, with a lack of overt political interference, is a valuable asset to our government. My understanding is that Senator McCain has walked backed some of these comments, but other Republican Senators have used this position and not walked the comments back. The Republicans have backed themselves in repeated corners with regard to the Supreme Court, and they would do well to fulfill their duties and respect the institutions, rather than revert to partisan gridlock. If no other argument appeals, it is in their self-interest. Someday, the Democrats will be in charge of the Senate and there will be a Republican in the White House.

By the way, the Democrats were guilty of broaching this argument to delay a Supreme Court appointment until after a presidential election last decade. The desire to obstruct, driven by the echo-chambers supporting wings of either party, have been a growing influence for some time. 

b.       If the Democrats control the Senate and Presidency, do you think they will be able to get much done in terms of policy and plans?

Not to be too simplistic, but that depends almost entirely on the House of Representatives. If the House flips to Democratic control with the Senate, it is not quite a whole new ball game for a President Clinton because of the filibuster in the Senate, but it would be much closer to one. If the House remains in Republican hands, I expect Speaker Ryan (should he still be that) to work on tax reform with the Senate and White House, but perhaps not much else. He may have to govern with Democratic support anyway, given he might have a raucous Right-wing contingent in the House. Again, Republicans might have a hard time justifying doing any work with President Clinton after the rhetoric in this campaign. Many of them have had to justify their votes for Mr. Trump by emphasizing, in their view, Mrs. Clinton’s vital flaws, and others have to appease pro-Trump primary voters who have heard him call Mrs. Clinton “the Devil” and “the most corrupt.”

c.       What will our country look like with Republican controlled congress and trump as president.

I would expect the Congress to fight with Mr. Trump over a variety of things. With a Trump presidency, nearly any fighting that occurs would probably become a public fight. The Republicans would, as I outlined above, have to grapple with how they deal with public spending, foreign policy, and other key debates in a manner they have not had to recently. I think it would be eventful. They would likely get a number of key conservative policy reforms through, however, specifically regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; if Republicans controlling both Congress and the Presidency did not repeal Obamacare, at least in some fashion, a certain segment of voters would revolt.

4.       Do you think wikileaks and Russia’s envolvement in US politics has been good or bad for the election?

Generally, more information is beneficial, in my view. The selective and timed release of information that may not be reliable, however, throws a wrench in that generalization. Wikileaks is less concerning than the actual hacking of U.S. databases by foreign entities. Russian government actions may or may not be at play here, but such actions are not for the better. While the United States has historically interfered with many elections around the world to install our preferred candidates, and we are perceived as doing so to this day by some governments, I am solidly in favor of leaving the domestic politics of sovereign nations to those nations. Based on that principle, I would prefer we stay out of elections in Russia (to the extent they exist) and Russia stay out of our elections. International monitoring, however, is something I support, and I am not opposed to that going in both directions.

a.       Do you find any credibility to the rumors that Putin and Trump’s campain are colluding together?

This narrative is likely overplayed, but Mr. Trump has gone out of his way to avoid critiquing Russia with the same tone he used to critique China, Mexico, or even other NATO member states. The Trump campaign’s interference with the GOP platform relative to Ukraine is also concerning, since that was reportedly the only piece of policy the Trump campaign itself insisted on changing. I suspect the relationship is not as nefarious as some have asserted, but it does, and should raise eyebrows and warrant scrutiny.

5.       Do you think the FBI is somehow trying to influence this election? They publicly announced information about the Clinton email scandal—setting what seems to be a new precedent in FBI/American Citizen relations—and have released old former president Bill Clinton information having to do with a pardon. Does this seem odd to you?

It is odd, but I do not believe the FBI is entirely in the tank for Mr. Trump. Relative to the Clinton email investigation being reopened, I can imagine Director Comey being in a situation where he thought information about the emails was going to be leaked some other way, and wanted to get out in front of it. If he had not, it would have appeared to be collusion with the Clinton campaign, which some Republicans had already asserted earlier in the year, and the FBI would have looked corrupt and like it was trying to influence the election to only one side of the political spectrum. Now, both sides are upset, to varying degrees, with the FBI. Director Comey probably had only bad choices. I am not sure if the bad choice he picked was the least bad for it, but I have no concrete reason to believe the FBI is politically motivated in a partisan way.

6.       Any reaction to the wikileaks about Clinton’s campaign, hints of collusion with CNN, and her continuing email scandal?

Donna Brazile behaved terribly for leaking questions to the Clinton campaign. It was improper and unfair. CNN was correct to send her away. She’s a skilled commentator and has been a respected Democratic Party operative, but she did not act admirably and should not be given the same level of access to debate questions again.