What Happens After the Electoral Earthquake?

What Happens After the Electoral Earthquake?
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The immediate response to Donald Trump’s victory is to call it a "change" election. That’s only partly right. It is misleading because Republican incumbents were returned to the Senate and the House. It is more accurate to call it a "throw this administration out" election. If it had been about throwing all insiders out, the Senate would have flipped.  It didn’t, despite a difficult map for Republicans. Even well-liked insiders, such as Indiana’s Evan Bayh, lost because they were emblems of Democratic Party cronyism. Bayh couldn’t remember the address of his little apartment in Indianapolis and had voted for Obamacare. He’s gone.

A second takeaway – yes, of course – is that Hillary Clinton was a dreadful candidate. She was the Jeb Bush of the general election: well-funded but not well-liked. Both were bad fits for an angry electorate. But Hillary was worse than Jeb since she came to symbolize everything corrupt about Washington.  He was simply a low-energy scion, despite the exclamation point after his name on campaign posters.

Third, although President Obama is personally popular, his policies are not. The tip-off was the vast gap between the Obamas’ popularity and the grim numbers saying the country is on “the wrong track.” The problem for Hillary was that she could only embrace the president’s policies, not his winning personality.

Fourth, Obama's legacy is now in jeopardy. All of it. What he did with a stroke of the pen can be undone the same way. Domestically, his only major legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was already melting down. Soon, it will be only a puddle, evaporating because it is fiscally unsustainable.

The only question is what will replace it. The president’s lasting achievement is not his failed Obamacare program but his ability to shift the terms of debate. There is now broad agreement that all Americans need medical coverage, not just emergency-room care, and that some need subsidies to get that coverage. That’s why Republicans couldn’t simply say they would repeal Obamacare. They had to promise to replace it with some kind of health-care policy, probably one featuring nationwide insurance markets, health-care savings accounts, medical liability limits, and subsidies for the sick and poor.

Fifth, expect China and Iran and perhaps Russia to test the administration during its final months in office. Obama is seen as weak, and nobody has a clue what Trump's foreign policy will look like, beyond trade protection.  America’s adversaries will see a chance to push hard.

Finally, the president’s thorniest remaining decision may be whether to proactively pardon the Clintons and their aides. They will want it -- but he will be reluctant to stain his legacy and be indelibly associated with the Clintons’ cauldron of corruption.

What happens to the Democratic Party?

It blows up and the party's left-wing picks up the pieces.

The Clintons are gone forever, or at least until the FBI completes its investigation of their family foundation and indictments, if any, are handed down.

Obama will remain Democrats’ titular leader, but that won’t mean much. Since he cannot run again, he cannot lead it into the future. Only current officeholders can do that.

That means the mantle will likely fall to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – leaders of the party's left wing. They will say, "We told you so. We could have won." Who knows? They might be right.

Their problem is the breadth of their appeal, or, rather, the lack of it. Their ascendancy will put the Democrats in a tenuous position for the next national election, which will be fought well beyond Warren's strongholds: the Northeast, college towns, and wealthy suburbs. If the country were Madison, Wis., or Scarsdale, N.Y., the Democrats would win. If it were the West Side of Chicago, they would win. It's not, and they won't. Even worse for them: The Senate terrain for the next election favors the Republicans. The Democrats next real shot is 2020. Until then, they are in the wilderness. Without the manna from heaven or a Moses to lead them.

What happens to the Republican Party?

It now belongs to Donald Trump -- not Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rand Paul, or, Lord knows, the Bushes. Since so few of the party's heavyweights supported Trump, it really is his alone. The second biggest player will be Paul Ryan in the House.

Expect Trump to push tough policies on immigration and trade, but expect great uncertainty beyond that. “Make America Great Again” is about as vacuous – and subjective -- as “Change You Can Believe In.” No one knows what "great" means, just as no one knew what "hope and change" meant.

Within the Republican Party, the fight is joined over the appointees to fill the Trump administration and what kinds of policies will fill in details of the candidate's broad outlines. In the Senate, Jeff Sessions will play a much bigger role, unless he’s tapped to head the Department of Justice or Homeland Security.

In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan will have to work more closely with the Freedom Caucus. The motto for the next few months comes from Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”  Actually, many nights.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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