Could Donald Trump Deliver Congress to the Democrats?

A supporter holds a Trump sticker before attending a campaign rally, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in Orlando, Florida.

With each preposterous new turn in the GOP presidential primary campaign, the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming president of the United States increase. The trouble is that a Clinton presidency has always promised to be largely an exercise in frustration. That's not because she's an incrementalist (true though that may be), but because she'll likely be confronted with a Republican Congress—and one no more inclined toward compromise and pragmatism than the one Barack Obama faces.

But what if that weren't true? Is there any chance Democrats might actually win back control of Capitol Hill and at least let a President Clinton (or a President Sanders, a possibility that remains real, if dwindling) do something that resembles governing?

The answer is yes, there is such a chance. And the reason is simple: Donald Trump.

We don't yet know whether Trump will be the Republican nominee. But at the moment that's the likeliest of all the possibilities for Republicans. And it also seems that having Trump as their leader will tear the party apart. Which could give Clinton not only the White House, but a chance for a presidency that accomplishes something.

Let's start by considering the Senate, where Republicans currently enjoy a 54-46 majority. Because the senators running for re-election this year are the ones who got elected in the Republican sweep of 2010, they are defending many more seats—24, while Democrats are defending only 10. Most of those seats, however, are safely in Republican hands. They could nominate Martin Shkreli for president and they'd be unlikely to lose Senate races in Oklahoma or South Carolina. But they are vulnerable in other places like Illinois, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, where Democrats have fielded strong candidates in states already leaning left.

Most forecasters have predicted that Democrats would net a few seats, but winning the four they need to push the Senate to 50-50 is a tough proposition. Until now, that is.

With Trump poised to win the nomination, some races that hadn't previously been seen as competitive are beginning to look that way. Consider Iowa, where the curmudgeonly Chuck Grassley is running for his seventh term. No one thought Grassley would face a serious challenge this year, but then came Trump, and the death of Antonin Scalia—which resulted in a wave of stories about how Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refuses to hold confirmation hearings on anyone President Obama nominates to the Supreme Court. Last week, Democrats got their wish when Patty Judge, a former lieutenant governor and state agriculture secretary, announced that she'll run for the seat. Grassley may still be reasonably popular, but if turnout is high in a state that voted for Barack Obama twice, Judge has a strong chance to win.

Something similar could happen in other states: What had looked like seats where Republicans had a clear advantage could be up for grabs, particularly if Democrats come out in force, moved to the polls by the ghastly prospect of Donald Trump becoming president. Combine that with a potentially dispirited Republican electorate, and Democrats could win more seats than anyone predicted. "We can't have a nominee be an albatross around the down-ballot races," Senator John Cornyn recently told CNN. "That's a concern of mine."

That brings us to the House. Democrats need a net gain of 30 seats to take it back, which has looked all but impossible until now. And it's still extremely difficult. But could it happen? It's hard to tell from our vantage point today. We don't know what kind of general election candidate Donald Trump would make, but the key to the outcome in the House could be how his candidacy affects turnout. If the #NeverTrump movement doesn't lose steam and lots of prominent Republicans distance themselves from their party's nominee, it could mean Republican voters staying home in large numbers, which would make it possible for Democrats to win back the seats they need to take control.

If Democrats take back both bodies, a Democratic president could actually have the chance to govern, including through passing legislation—imagine that. But even if Democrats took only the Senate, it would make a huge difference.

Back in 2013, Democrats then controlling the Senate got so frustrated with Republican obstructionism that they changed the body's rules on confirmation of executive branch appointments and those of judges serving on lower courts, allowing those nominations to be confirmed with a simple majority vote and disallowing filibusters. The rule change didn't apply to legislation or to Supreme Court nominees, and senators are still allowed to do talking filibusters, where they hold the floor for as long as they can (so Ted Cruz will still have something to do when he returns to the Senate next year).

So a President Clinton could continue to transform the federal courts simply by virtue of filling openings as they come up. There's a bottleneck right now as Republicans refuse to confirm more of Obama's judicial nominees, but if that were broken, after 12 or even 16 years of Democratic appointments, the lower courts would be firmly in liberal hands.

And what about the Supreme Court? Not only is there the matter of Scalia's seat to deal with, but it's almost certain that more seats will become vacant in the next president's first term. On Inauguration Day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83, Anthony Kennedy will be 80, and Stephen Breyer will be 78. If and when Republicans decide to filibuster any Democratic nominee, you can bet that Senate Democrats will make another rule change to disallow filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. Republicans will decry it as a terrible power grab, but it will be exactly what they earned with their obstructionism.

This all may not sound like a recipe for an era of excellence in government. It will be terribly partisan, and if Republicans hold on to the House, it will mean almost no meaningful legislation outside of continuing resolutions funding the government to avoid shutdowns. But between the executive and judicial branches, you can accomplish quite a bit. Hillary Clinton would certainly hope for more, but it's what she may have to settle for. And it could be a lot worse. 

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