The Democrat’s Hillary Gambit
By Nayyer Ali MD
In chess, a gambit is a maneuver where a player gives up a piece willingly in exchange for a much more favorable position on the board. In theory, the better position is worth the loss of the piece and makes victory more likely. The failure of Hillary’s campaign for the Presidency last year, which few expected, may in fact turn out to be a political gambit that works in the long run favor of the Democrats.
Hillary had a number of flaws as a candidate, and her campaign made a number of terrible unforced errors, not the least of which was the failure to put any resources into holding Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, states that have voted Democrat since 1992. Instead, we have ended up with a grossly incompetent person in the White House who has no capacity to serve as President. His latest missteps, from the firing of the FBI Director to the sharing of highly sensitive intelligence with the Russian Ambassador as a way to impress the Russians, are taking an increasing toll on his administration. A few Democrats are even saying the word “impeachment” in a serious way.
But the reality is that even if Hillary had won in 2016, she would have had very little ability to enact a liberal Democratic agenda. The Republicans were still going to control Congress, and all of Hillary’s grand plans for domestic policies would have been dead on arrival. For the Democrats to get control of the agenda, they must rebuild their position in Congress and not just win the White House.
This is where the sacrifice of Hillary has changed the equation. It is a truism of American politics that the President’s party takes major losses at the first midterm elections. This happened in 1994, when the Republicans took Congress, it also happened at the 2006 midterms under George Bush, when the Democrats captured Congress back. In 2010, Obama’s ability to get new legislation was blocked as the Republicans got control of the House and picked up 8 seats in the Senate, and in the 2014 midterms the Republicans picked up another 8 seats and took the majority.
The Democrats are now going to benefit from this pattern. At the time of the midterms, the President’s opponents tend to be motivated to vote to express their disdain, while his supporters are often poorly inspired, and even demoralized if things are going poorly. Polls already are showing a huge intensity gap between Republican and Democratic voters with regards to 2018. Meanwhile, Trump is descending in the polls, and his approval ratings have cratered under 40%. The Democrats need to pick up 21 seats to get the majority in the House, and currently they appear well on track to achieve that. If Hillary had been elected there would have been no chance of that happening.
In the Senate the picture is more complex. Out of the 100 Senators, 52 are Republican, but only 33 of the total Senate is up for election in 2018 as Senators serve staggered 6-year terms. Of the 33 up in 2018, it so happens that 25 of them are Democrats. That reflects the great results the Democrats had in 2012 when Obama was reelected. If Hillary had been President, it would have been likely that many of those 25 Democratic Senators would be in danger of losing, certainly the several that are in conservative Republican states. But with Trump and his unpopularity and incompetence on display, the Democrats have a much better chance of holding those seats, and there are two Republican Senators in Nevada and Arizona that could lose. It is highly unlikely that the Democrats could gain seats in the Senate, but if they only lose a net 1 or 2 that will be a great result. They will then be in an excellent position for 2020.
In 2020, Trump will likely be on his last gasps, and headed to a bad defeat for reelection. It’s even possible he could be successfully challenged in the Republican primary by a more traditional Republican. Either way, the Democrats will have an excellent shot of winning back the White House, and they will also be in a great position to win back control of the Senate, as a number of Republican Senators that won in 2014 will be vulnerable in a Democratic tide.
To game out the next 4 years in politics is a bit uncertain, the political climate can be changed by so many variables. But given what a completely incompetent joke Trump has shown himself to be, it looks very good for the Democrats to get full control of the White House and Congress in 2020, something that would not have happened with Hillary winning last year.
The Hillary gambit may turn out to be a winning play for the Democrats, as long as Trump does not cause grievous harm to the country in the next 2 years. The biggest concern would be starting a foolish war. The chances of that are still low. What could change things is if Trump digs himself into enough legal trouble to get impeached and removed. That possibility remains extremely remote, but if I were a Democrat, I would much prefer an impotent and incoherent Trump staying on the ballot for 2020.