Opinion

Why President Hillary Clinton would inaugurate a golden age of Republican obstructionism

Think Republicans have been unfair to Obama? Wait till you see what they'll do to Hillary.

In what has since become the most infamous dinner party of the Barack Obama era in Washington, Republican congressional leaders gathered on the night of the new president's inauguration in January 2009 and decided that the best way to deal with Obama was to oppose him utterly and completely on everything he wanted to do. It didn't take a lot of convincing, since that's what they had been telling each other since election day. "We're not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years," Eric Cantor, then the minority whip, told his staff the month before, as Michael Grunwald reports in his book The New New Deal. "We're going to fight these guys."

Very soon almost every Republican in Congress got on board. As The New York Times would describe it a year later, the party's leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, "had a strategy for his party: Use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation."

You can see that strategy of total opposition as a cynical ploy that corroded American democracy and did substantial harm to the country's well-being, and you'd be right. But you can also see it as completely rational and, in some ways, successful. McConnell said in 2010, "Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term," and while they may not have succeeded in that, they did manage to take back first the House (in 2010) and then the Senate (in 2014), and they stopped Obama from doing many of the things he wanted to do.

Faced with the prospect of President Hillary Clinton taking office in January 2017, is there any reason to think Republicans would act any differently? Or to put it another way, why wouldn't they do to Clinton exactly what they did to Obama?

The best way to understand this question is to think about the benefits and costs of any particular kind of obstruction, when we start from the premise that most of the things Clinton wants to do are things Republicans would like to avoid. Obstruction is only problematic if it results in retribution from voters, and as McConnell and other Republicans understand, that retribution is rare. Most Americans see the dysfunction in Congress and blame "Washington," which they perceive as a bipartisan collection of malefactors who can't "get things done." If there's little or no political cost to you in particular, there's no reason to compromise when doing so means the enactment of policy changes you find objectionable.

So Republicans have eagerly searched for as many ways as they can to throw sand in government's gears, often by violating the norms that heretofore enabled the system to operate smoothly. Filibusters used to be a way for the minority to stop legislation at extraordinary moments, but Republicans decided to filibuster essentially everything, creating a 60-vote minimum requirement for any substantial bill. When Antonin Scalia died in February, they invented a new "rule" that presidents don't get to fill Supreme Court vacancies during the final year of their terms. Democrats sputtered in rage, but couldn't do anything to stop them.

And I have little doubt that should Hillary Clinton win in November, Republicans will come up with all kinds of innovative new techniques of obstruction, challenging the way things have always been done. For instance, just as there's no formal rule to keep them from refusing to hear Merrick Garland's nomination for that Supreme Court seat, there's no rule saying they couldn't delay it for another four years, in the hopes that a future Republican president will be able to make the appointment. It may sound ridiculous today, but it won't sound quite as ridiculous once a parade of Republican politicians and conservative pundits take to the airwaves and news pages insisting that an eight-member Court is the true embodiment of the framer's vision for democratic cooperation and accountability (or something like that).

That isn't to say that there's never a political cost to obstruction, but it tends to come only when things get really bad. Republicans did shut down the government in 2013, but after a couple of weeks they allowed it to reopen once the pressure got too intense. There are also sometimes substantive costs to obstruction. Let's say that Democrats win back the Senate and Clinton nominates a younger, more liberal justice to the Court, whom that Democratic Senate confirms. Republicans would have lost out by not confirming the 63-year-old, relatively moderate Garland. Had they worked with Democrats in 2009 on health care reform instead of just fighting them, the Affordable Care Act might have been more to their liking; instead it was written and passed by Democrats without their help.

You could also argue that making themselves into an obstructionist party put the Republicans in the situation they are now with Donald Trump as their presumptive presidential nominee. They worked their constituents into a frenzy of rage, promising that they could stop Obama in his tracks, and when despite their efforts Obama continued to occupy the Oval Office, Republican voters concluded that their party's leaders were ineffectual and weak. So those voters turned to the biggest "outsider" they could find, a candidate who could barely tell you what the three branches of government are and who thinks that economic growth is a function of the president personally "making deals" with various people.

But congressional Republicans will probably put the blame elsewhere for Donald Trump, or nowhere at all, telling themselves he was a political lightning strike no one could have predicted. They'll look up Pennsylvania Avenue and see Hillary Clinton, someone they've loathed for a quarter-century, sitting so smugly in the White House, thinking she can do things like pass legislation and govern the country. And they'll decide, once again, that their only course of action is to fight her to their dying breaths.

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