As we look to the 2016 presidential election, we need to understand that while we only have two candidates who might be president, we actually have three likely scenarios we might see over the next four years.
The first possibility is that Trump wins. Don’t write it off. Yes, thankfully, he is down in most national and swing state polls right now, and is running an undisciplined campaign, which has succeeded in offending two-thirds of the American public. But Trump is an aggressive counter-puncher who knows how to throw his opponents off their game; a lot of the big swing states are still too close for comfort; and a Democratic victory requires a strong turnout of African-American, Latino, unmarried women, and young people, and that is not guaranteed by any stretch. Turning out voters requires inspiration from the candidate, passion from hundreds of thousands of fired up volunteers, and enough money for a strong voter registration and get-out-the-vote ground game. None of that is a given.
So let’s say we have the worst case (but unfortunately plausible) scenario: national Democrats get comfortable with this lead and start taking the win for granted; Hillary plays it safe and picks someone dull and centrist for her VP, and in general runs a campaign that doesn’t inspire; Trump lands some tough punches and throws Hillary’s campaign off its game; and too much money is spent on TV ads and not nearly enough is allocated to voter reg and GOTV. Trump pulls out the upset and is president.
So an open racist who encourages violence against demonstrators at his rallies and wants to ban Muslims from entering the country becomes the president. Can you imagine what kind of shape this country would be in after four years of Donald Trump as president? The economy would be a shambles. Trump’s wealthy cronies would be richer than ever after one sweetheart deal after another, but for the rest of us it would live like we were in a Mad Max movie. Violent white supremacists and nativists would be empowered. Supreme Court nominees would be both right-wing and as corrupt as the Donald himself. Since Trump seems to pay no attention to laws or rules, I have major questions as to even whether our democracy would survive those four terrible years.
Let’s move on quickly, as that scenario is making me ill.
Scenario number two is that Hillary wins, but that it is a cautious campaign and presidency that doesn’t shake things up much: a centrist VP pick loved by the DC establishment; a medium-sized base turnout and modest victory over Trump that doesn’t create the conditions for the kind of Democratic wave election we need to retake Congress; and a presidency much like the last six years of the Obama administration. There would likely be tough negotiations with the Republicans over budgets, some good executive orders, and a mixed bag of appointees to key regulatory and policy-making positions in the administration. Independent-minded progressives in the Senate like Elizabeth Warren would do their best to hold administration officials accountable and stop the most big business friendly nominees from getting appointed.
This is what most people are guessing will happen. While not my favorite scenario, it is certainly a hell of a lot better than a Trump presidency. The country doesn’t spiral completely out of control, for one small thing. But more than that: progressives can get real wins even with moderate Democratic presidents. The last seven plus years have resulted in 20 million more people with health insurance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, major new investments in solar and wind power, new regulations on greenhouse gases, the Paris climate agreement, higher taxes on the wealthy, higher minimum wages for workers working for federal contractors, major gains in LGBT rights, and an array of other progressive initiatives. Progressives have shown an ability to stop Obama from doing bad things he wanted to do, from cutting Social Security to (so far) passing the TPP to blocking important nominees they didn’t like, such as Larry Summers.
Does any of this go far enough? Hell, no. We need bigger and better changes in this country, and on some issues like climate change, financial reform, and economic inequality, we need really big changes sooner rather than later. And we need to fight back against the dumb stuff that some Democrats want to do, like TPP, fracking, and too much hawkishness in our foreign policy. But even a moderate Democrat needs their progressive base, and we do have leverage and power to wield with them (unlike with Trump, who will never care at all about what progressives think.)
Having said all that, there are big problems with scenario two — not just for progressives who can’t get everything they want, but for Hillary. For one thing, it endangers the victory in November, as a cautious VP pick and campaign risk being able to inspire the volunteers and voters they need for a big turnout. But even assuming she wins, Hillary would have a far more effective and robust presidency if her party is united and working together toward the same goals. If the party is both united and excited, she has a chance to work with a Democratic Congress rather than a dysfunctional Tea Party-led Congress. And if she’s not fighting with much of her party over divisive appointments and issues, but is leading an inspired and unified party and progressive movement, she could have a historic presidency.
My third scenario may not be the most likely, but it is more possible than a lot of progressives think. There is, after all, a lot of logic to it. Let’s say she picks a VP who excites and motivates the progressive wing of the party, and runs a campaign built on the strategic premise of firing up the Rising American Electorate (which pollsters like Stan Greenberg define as people of color, unmarried women, and young people). With a high base turnout, she sweeps into power with big gains in Congress and the wind at her back. With progressives passionately working with her instead of having to fight her on appointments and some policies, she is able to win some big victories with that new Congress, keep Democratic activists and voters engaged, and reverse the trend of low Democratic turnout and bad results in the off-year elections, strengthening her hand further.
The first scenario is harrowing and horrible: this country cannot afford a racist, corrupt buffoon as President. The 2nd scenario is a whole lot better than the first, and could still result in some progressive victories over the 4 years, but might weaken the Democratic party over the long term by dividing our forces and by not making the transformational changes we need in this country. The 3rd scenario is Hillary’s best play for a successful presidency, and the nation’s best chance for making the big reforms we truly need to make.