Make no mistake, Nov. 8, 2016, will be the day America elects a new president. The implications of the election are broad. The economy is still stagnant and stuck in first gear. ISIS is requiring greater attention and resources on the global scale. A Supreme Court seat has been vacant for nearly a year, and three other currently sitting justices are 78 or older — leaving the next president with the likely opportunity to appoint as many as three new justices to the court and drastically shift its dynamic. The prevalence of violence in our cities’ streets seems to be escalating along racial or prejudicial lines. Both the public and the government seem to be more deeply polarized, which will make any action of the next president hotly divisive.
And therein lies the most important and potentially troubling aspect of this election. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are proving themselves as bridge-builders. Support for one candidate or the other is more closely linked to feelings of distrust or unworthiness of their opponent than it is actual legitimate support for that candidate. Both candidates are widely distrusted at unprecedented levels. They’re both struggling to unify their party’s base, as well as have major weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their ideas, messaging and public image. But one way or another, one of them will be our next Commander in Chief.
So what does a Clinton or Trump presidency look like? There may be more similarities than you think. Fortunately for the construction infrastructure industry, both candidates have expressly stated their desire to rebuild and improve upon America’s depleted infrastructure. More so, at least, than any other president in recent history.
It’s likely both will face a confrontational Congress. Political handicappers resoundingly believe the House is not in jeopardy of changing party control. The Senate, however, is not in the same position. Democrats have been eyeing this election since 2014 as their opportunity to regain control of the Senate. The current makeup of the Senate is 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and two Independents (who caucus with Democrats), so in order for power to shift, Republicans would have to lose four seats and the presidency, or five seats while winning the White House (the vice president becomes the tie-breaking vote). In any case, neither party has filibuster-proof majorities so anything (and everything) that moves through the Senate will need to be bipartisan.
This will make things very difficult for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is likely to lose a small handful of the GOP majority, but at the same time, making the GOP majority more conservative by bolstering the ranks of the Freedom Caucus.
The Freedom Caucus is essentially the evolution of the Tea Party in the House. They are an ultra-conservative group, formed in large part to oust former Speaker John Boehner. Its a who’s-who of House rabble-rousers known more for what they oppose (nearly everything) than what they support (political themes that play well with anti-government constituents).
As the Freedom Caucus grows in perceived power, the Speaker will have a more difficult time moving legislation within the GOP conference and will have to work with Democrats to pass legislation if the Freedom Caucus, which has about 40 members, withholds support from legislation, which it does regularly. You’ll recall this is the same sort of political environment that cost Boehner his speakership.
The point is that no matter who becomes president, the environment in Congress — and therefore its outputs — are unlikely to be any different than they are currently. Barring an emergency or transformational event, Congress will still be largely unproductive and divided.
So what are the differences we can expect in a potential Clinton or Trump Administration? It’s hard to say. The largest difference between the two administrations is how they use the “bully pulpit” to build support for their agendas and communicate with the public. Clinton has been criticized for coming across cold, lecturing and academic in the promotion of her ideas during the election. She would likely employ surrogates and a behind-the-scenes tactic with more skillful messaging to help her build her support. On the other hand, we have seen Trump’s criticism of the media and unwavering willingness to be unfiltered on the stump, which is both his greatest asset in attracting like-minded support and his greatest weakness, ostracizing those who question him.
But even these differences may only be perception. If Clinton becomes president, you can expect Republicans to oppose just about all of her proposals, en bloc. As a result, a barrage of administrative actions like executive orders and regulations is her likely course of action. If Trump becomes president, and the Congress remains in GOP control, you will likely see just how good and willing he is at negotiating, one of his repeated campaign boasts. If he is unable to rile enough moderate and democratic support, expect him to take unilateral action just as he has proven in his businesses. While the reasons for these actions are different, Clinton believes the state should regulate whereas Trump sees regulation as the path of least resistance — they may ultimately end up taking the same course.
Another important point worth making here is that opposition to both candidates seems unlikely to wane after the election. Traditionally, a new president enjoys wide leniency in his (or her) first 100 days. The public may be more likely to give latitude, but don’t expect the Congress to follow suit.
There are plenty of differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They differ in style, in beliefs and in résumé. But at the end of the day, if their differences are mitigated by the landscape and partisanship that dictate that they both must take the same actions, then this election becomes more about changing the process, the environment and the mindset than electing a president.
Will Brown is NUCA’s director of Government Affairs.