Clinton's Polarizing Path to Victory

The front-runner is winning by following her party to the left, and leaving behind a Republican Party voting as if “white” were an ethnic bloc.

Mike Segar / Reuters

It’s going to be Hillary Clinton’s nomination. But it’s not going to be her party. It looks likely to be her election—but not so likely to be her government.

Tuesday’s vote in New York brings closer a high-risk outcome in November. A Trump nomination in Cleveland means large-scale Republican no-shows at the polls. In 1972, Democrats repelled by their party choice split their tickets, re-electing both Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress. Ticket-splitting has become rarer since then. Disappointed partisans now stay home, and voters who stay home spread defeat all the way down the ticket.

Hillary Clinton, so often described as a weak candidate, may yet pull a handsome slew of wins into Congress behind her.

But those Democrats will know they owe their success not to the head of their ticket, but to the head of the other ticket. They won’t owe Clinton—and they will be keenly aware of the leftward surge of opinion inside their party that made Clinton’s nomination so arduous and protracted. Hillary Clinton has had to veer left on trade, crime, immigration, energy, charter schools, and tax increases to appease her party activist base. Won’t new Democratic senators feel they have to do the same? Won’t many want to? If Ted Strickland replaces Rob Portman in Ohio, if Russ Feingold defeats Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, if Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey go down—the emerging Senate will ratify Clinton’s tactical maneuvers in the campaign. And what if the House is lost to the GOP, too? That’s less likely, but not unimaginable.

We could see the election of a Congress defined by and frightened of the Democratic activist left, in tandem with a Democratic president who has already demonstrated that she does not lead her party and will instead be led by it.

All of them will know that they have a relatively short time to implement an agenda before the Republican snap-back from the self-inflicted defeat of November 2016. They’ll try to move fast on an agenda that is passionately desired by their base, but unsupported by any broad national coalition. They’ll lead with the most divisive item of them all, immigration, in hope of locking in for the long haul the electoral majority that only good fortune gained them in 2016. Whatever they do, they will confront an out-party in the GOP even more embittered than in 2009, because this time Republicans will feel not only the usual sting of defeat but the extra anger of people defeated by their own errors.

Some will outright deny the legitimacy of the Democratic win; all will expect it to be a briefly passing thing to be resisted at all costs until normal politics reasserts itself. While the same people who wrote the “party autopsy” after 2012 will proclaim after a Trump defeat that now it is time to revert to the true Reagan-Kemp-Ryan gospel, Republicans with an eye to the future will recognize that Trump discovered something new and important about national politics. Trump inspired millions of Americans to vote as if “white” were an ethnic bloc, something often seen in state elections in the South, but rarely if ever before seen in a presidential contest. Yet this new sighting will likely recur again and again as the relative wealth and power of downmarket white America shrink—and especially if a President Clinton’s immigration policies accelerate that shrinkage. President Obama’s famous hope that the “fever will break” in favor of a more calm, deliberate, and technical politics of adjustment between a pro-market right and a pro-intervention left will seem even more forlorn, as November’s winners perceive a non-recurring opportunity to take all—and November’s losers fear they could lose all.