The appallingly substance-free media coverage of the 2016 elections, which has revolved around titillating tapes and email snipe hunts, has largely ignored the historically stark policy choices now facing the American public. The nation’s growing polarization has given us a Democrat running on the most progressive platform since 1972, if not ever, and a Republican whose policies would take the country back to the Gilded Age.
Admittedly, since Republicans will almost certainly maintain control of the House, the Democratic legislative agenda may be somewhat beside the point. But does this mean, as Kathleen Parker recently argued in The Washington Post, that the election’s outcome is no big deal either way? Not on your life. For progressives, the differences between the best- and worst-case plausible scenarios in the 2016 elections are, as Donald Trump would say, “yuge.” Let’s take the different possible scenarios one at a time.
If Hillary Clinton wins, but Republicans retain the Senate, this may well leave Clinton unable to confirm a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, and she would also struggle to win confirmation for her nominees to some administrative agencies. But even in this event, having Clinton rather than Trump in the White House would be greatly consequential on several fronts, from environmental policy to immigration, consumer protection, civil liberties, and health care.
Arguably the most important of these is environmental policy. A Clinton administration would proceed with Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a regulatory framework that is on track to substantially reduce carbon emissions. The plan faces a court challenge, but is expected to be upheld in the D.C. Circuit. That means that if it comes before the now evenly divided Supreme Court, the worst-case scenario is a likely deadlock that would leave the lower court ruling in place. A Clinton administration could also be expected to implement and expand the wide variety of regulations that the Obama administration has proposed to combat climate change and protect the environment.
By contrast, an administration helmed by Donald Trump, who has said climate change is a hoax invented by Chinese interests, would end the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory agenda, substantially increase in the use of dirty energies like coal, and slash support for the development of renewable energy technologies. Even four years of Trump would do incalculable damage to the planet.
Another critical difference between a Clinton and Trump administration is federal regulatory enforcement. As Michael Tomasky once wrote for the Prospect, “In every agency of government, at every level, there are political appointees who are interpreting federal rules and regulations and deciding how much effort will really be put into pursuing federal discrimination cases, for instance, or illegal toxic dumping. These are the people who are, in fact, the federal government. The kinds of people who fill those slots in a Democratic administration are of a very different stripe than the kinds who fill them during a Republican term.”
A Clinton administration would aggressively enforce voting rights and other anti-discrimination laws. As reflected in her campaign, Clinton’s administration would place a priority on enforcing the rights of the disabled. It would more aggressively enforce the rights of consumers. Clinton would almost certainly proceed with Obama’s more humane immigration policies. On these and other issues, a Trump administration would move the nation in the opposite direction. Moreover, as Thomas Geoghegan recently observed, a Democratic administration provides a training ground for many young, progressive Democrats.
Clinton’s hand will be even stronger if Democrats manage to retake the Senate. A Senate Democratic majority would place another high-stakes matter on the front burner: the Supreme Court. A Clinton nominee confirmed to replace Scalia would create the first Supreme Court with a liberal median vote in nearly 50 years. Clinton may also be able to replace one or more additional justices, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, or Anthony Kennedy, further consolidating a liberal Court majority.
The Supreme Court’s makeup carries particular weight in the area of reproductive freedom. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has explained, Roe v. Wade—and, hence, the fundamental constitutional right of women in many states to obtain safe and legal abortions—is definitely on the ballot on Tuesday. But the Supreme Court will also weigh in decisively on many other issues, including but not limited to same-sex marriage, worker’s rights, civil liberties, campaign-finance reform, voting rights, and the legislative and regulatory powers of the federal government. The policy stakes involved in who can pick the next Supreme Court justices can hardly be overstated. And despite some claims that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments would be unpredictable, all evidence suggests he’d nominated reactionary stalwarts in the mold of Samuel Alito.
As important as what Clinton can do is what she can stop. Her veto pen would be a critical check on a Congress led by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Their far-right agenda is no secret, and Trump would almost certainly sign any major bill GOP leaders put on his desk. A Republican Congress would pass massive upper-class tax cuts. It would repeal the Affordable Care Act and roll back its historic Medicaid expansion, threatening the health insurance of more than 20 million people. It would slash spending for the poor while increasing defense spending. It would probably eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and substantially deregulate the financial sector. It would also inevitably pass new federal restrictions on abortion. A Republican Congress and White House would orchestrate a massive upward distribution of wealth that would inflict incalculable suffering on the most vulnerable Americas. If you like what public policy in Kansas looks like right now, imagine taking Brownback’s disastrous policies national. That’s what Paul Ryan wants, and that’s what he will get if Trump wins the White House.
Trump’s candidacy has mobilized a wide coalition of progressive groups, including civil-rights, environmental, women's-health, labor, LBGT, and pro-immigrant organizations. These groups know what rides on the outcome of the elections. Such advocates would undoubtedly find fault at times with a Clinton administration, but they would enjoy a seat at the table. In a Trump administration, progressive activists’ only view would be from under a boot. This is a story the media have not effectively told in this election, but it’s one with enormous stakes for the progressive community.