For Hillary Clinton, Tuesday night was both the best of times and the worst of times. As the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, her path to the presidency became slightly smoother. The problem, however, is that the magnitude of the GOP victory has made winning the White House a heck of a lot less attractive.
Let’s start with the good news — the GOP won the Senate! On the surface, this was clearly a bad outcome for Democrats, but it’s probably the best possible result for Hillary. First, panicked Democrats may be less inclined to look elsewhere for a candidate, particularly since Clinton is almost certainly the best-positioned and definitely the most popular Democratic presidential wannabe. It’s not hard to imagine Democrats coalescing quickly around her candidacy, fearful of a drawn-out intra-party primary fight.
Second, the worst thing for the GOP brand is if the party is actually forced to govern the country.
Governing involves doing things like drafting and passing legislation, forging compromises, reaching across the aisle, resisting overreach, and keeping radicalism in check. These are all things that Republicans are terrible at. For all the kumbaya talk in Washington right now, the chances of the White House and Congress finding common ground on much of anything are about equal to my chances of playing shortstop for the Red Sox next year. The chances that the GOP becomes immersed in an internecine civil war, its radical fringe acts radical, and pretty much nothing getting accomplished other than a lot of vetoes, more gridlock, and a dollop of showdowns and shutdowns are far more likely possibilities.
All of that will be helpful to Hillary’s political prospects. Putting aside the fact that Republicans being in charge of both the House and Senate will almost certainly widen the divisions within the GOP, a Republican Congress will serve as an effective political foil for Clinton. It will be a group she can run directly against and use to mobilize Democratic constituencies fearful of Republicans taking the presidency and Congress.
But there is the rub. Tuesday’s results have increased dramatically the likelihood that, if Hillary Clinton were to run and win the presidency, she would spend much of her time dealing with a GOP-run congress.
While most political prognosticators expected the GOP to have a good night Tuesday, it was far better for them than many expected. Democrats lost pretty much every single close Senate election, including races in Iowa and Colorado that they probably shouldn’t have lost. To be sure, the 2016 Senate map looks very good for Democrats. They will be protecting, at best, one or two vulnerable seats. With the advantage of Clinton at the head of the ticket and higher expected Democratic turnout in an election year, they will have good pick-up possibilities in Illinois, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. The challenge? With Republicans likely to end up with 54 seats this year, the road to a Democratic Senate majority will be that much more difficult.
The situation is far worse in the House, where Republicans have significantly increased their margin. When all the votes are counted, the GOP could have its largest House majority since the 1930s. Democrats would need to pick up at least 30 seats (and perhaps more) to win back the chamber — an event highly unlikely to occur in 2016.
Of course, two years is a long time in politics and if Republicans nominate a bomb-thrower like Ted Cruz there is certainly the possibility of a GOP bloodbath that will give Democrats full control of Congress. But it’s a very long shot. And then in 2018, the Senate map is as ugly for Democrats as it is for Republicans in 2016, which means we could be right back where we are right now.
Rather than running for president so she can make a difference, Clinton may be running simply to prevent Republicans from dominating Washington. For Democrats, that’s obviously a pretty good reason for her to run and presidents are far from powerless. But none of that should make her feel too good about spending the next two years sleeping in Holiday Inns, living off room service, and not seeing her grandkid.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.