When Hillary Clinton starred at her first campaign rally of the 2014 midterm elections, she picked Pennsylvania as the setting and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Wolf as her partner in crime. Before around a thousand people in Philadelphia, Clinton held up Wolf as a shining example of what the Democratic Party had to offer—a single person who, if elected, would "turn around" Pennsylvania.
Wolf won by nearly 10 percentage points a month later. But since then, his experience in office has turned into a worst-case example of what a future Clinton presidency could look like.
Though Wolf won by a large margin in November, Pennsylvania voters also gave Republicans a huge majority in the legislature. The policy proposals that Wolf outlined as he won 55 percent of the state's votes died on arrival in Harrisburg, the state capital. Wolf and Republican legislators were unable to agree on a budget by Pennsylvania's July 1 deadline, either, meaning the state is operating without a financial plan, and the funds for some spending could start running out this month.
It's a cautionary tale for Clinton, who may still face frustration at the hands of congressional Republicans in 2017 even if she manages to defeat their party's presidential nominee in 2016. Though the Senate is up for grabs, House Republicans virtually have a vice grip on their chamber, meaning that Clinton could become the first president since George H.W. Bush in 1989 to start the job without full control of Congress.
While Democrats are bullish about their chances of keeping the White House, they know that the House of Representatives is all but out of reach right now. Rep. Steve Israel, a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a member of party leadership, just told C-SPAN's Newsmakers program that he thought Democrats could expect to win "eight to 10 seats" in 2016. It would take 30 to flip the House.
That wasn't always a problem for past presidents, who often could count on Northeastern Republicans, Southern Democrats, or healthy numbers of other swing voters in Congress. But partisan gridlock has increasingly become more the rule rather than the exception, both in Congress and in the 19 states like Pennsylvania with "divided government."
President Obama's inability to pass many key legislative goals since the 2010 election has highlighted this reality in a divided Washington. But Wolf's experience in Pennsylvania shows how it can halt even a freshly victorious chief executive with a "mandate." Wolf's campaign platform included some broadly popular goals according to public polling then and now, such as instituting a severance tax on natural-gas production and investing more money in education. But Wolf's central campaign pledges haven't made it past Republican legislative leaders. In the past few weeks, Wolf issued rare vetoes of a Republican-authored budget and a pension-system overhaul.
"The Republican leadership has not been willing to compromise and they're ignoring the will of the people," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. But such attacks, or Wolf's campaign-style visits to rally support on Republican legislators' home turf, haven't helped break the gridlock in Pennsylvania so far.
The same fate easily could meet the policy proposals Clinton is laying out on the economy, immigration, criminal justice reform, and more. Her proposal to mandate an early voting period in federal elections, for example, would be highly unlikely to find support in a GOP-controlled House.
Wolf isn't the only new governor serving as a cautionary tale. In Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative supermajorities are totally stuck on the budget and Rauner's proposed labor laws. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, one of Clinton's oldest allies in politics, has faced similar stagnation since his election in 2013. Facing a GOP-held legislature, McAuliffe has all but given up on passing Medicaid expansion, one of his central campaign promises.
But Wolf's example may be most telling. Not only did Clinton campaign for Wolf last year, but they share plenty of policy positions. Clinton's Monday economic address in New York City bore similarities to Wolf's 2014 campaign message. Clinton proposed tax code changes to encourage corporations to share profits with employees, and Wolf, who is a former CEO of his family's cabinet business, campaigned on his record of sharing 20 to 30 percent of company profits with employees, arguing that "prosperity is real when it's shared broadly."
What's more, Wolf and Clinton will cross paths again in Philadelphia next summer, where Wolf will be playing host as the home-state governor at the Democratic National Convention. Though Clinton's fans already are looking forward to watching her accept the Democratic presidential nomination there, Wolf's example shows why she might not be able to make the most of the opportunity.