A Post-Election Round Up

Dr. Ronald J. Granieri, Director of Research & Lecturer at The Lauder Institute, took some time to share with us his thoughts and immediate reactions to the presidential election. He also spoke with WHYY’s Radio Times to discuss foreign policy challenges facing President-elect Trump. To listen to the interview, click here.

Firstly, what are your initial reactions to the election results?

As sportswriters like to say when there is an upset of a heavy favorite—that’s why they play the games.

Like pretty much every political observer, I am surprised that Trump managed to pull it off. All previous elections, even those that turned out to be close (such as the legendary 2000 vote), still ended up being won by the person whom polls had predicted to win in late October. So this is literally a historic result. Of course, many writers will now begin identifying all of the factors that made this result inevitable or obvious. It’s what historians and journalists do all the time. But if anyone tells you they knew exactly how this would happen, they are lying to you.

The result has many facets. On the one hand, Trump’s electoral vote margin is significant. He won 30 states, and more than 300 electoral votes, including those of several states that had not gone for a Republican candidate in nearly three decades. Nevertheless, the combination of Secretary Clinton’s big margins in states such as California and New York and Trump’s more modest margins across the Midwest mean that Clinton will have scored a significant victory in the popular vote, even though neither of them won an absolute majority. Although electoral votes are decisive, the split decision will undermine Trump’s legitimacy in the eyes of many voters who were not well disposed toward him anyway.

At the same time, strong Republican showings in Congressional elections have preserved their majorities in both houses, which gives Trump significant wind at his back. So he will be sorely tempted to press his advantage as far as he can.

What do you think should be on the agenda for the president-elect’s first 100 days?

A recent article from Evan Osnos in The New Yorker offered some interesting insights into what a President Trump was likely to do in his first year, which is worth a look. One of the most important insights in that piece is that, despite our cynicism about campaign promises, most Presidents do follow through on more than two-thirds of what they say they are going to do—for better or worse. So it is very likely that President Trump will try to make a splash by quickly doing things that lie within a President’s executive power. He is likely, for example, to reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration and climate change, and could even announce American withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. Working with Republicans in Congress, he is also likely to push ahead with repeal of significant portions of the Affordable Care Act, though the details remain to be seen.

That, however, describes what he is likely to do. As to what he should do, I would hope that he would find ways to reach across the partisan divide. There has been a lot of talk about an infrastructure spending program, which would gain Democratic votes. That would be a positive step, but would collide with the austerity agenda of the Republican Congressional leadership.

After such a contentious election season, how can the new President bring the country together?

Considering the waves of disbelief and soul-searching that have accompanied this result, not to mention the potential for mounting protests, Trump will have to show a greater degree of statesmanship than he has shown thus far.

Republicans have spent the past eight years questioning the legitimacy of President Obama, which means Democrats will have plenty of reasons to resist bipartisan blandishments. Thus Trump’s challenge is especially profound.

In such situations, the best thing would be for the President-Elect to speak directly to the public about his plans, to highlight the areas where compromise is possible and seek the high moral ground. President-Elect Trump will have to signal whether his supporters were correct that he would “pivot” once in office, and that he would treat the office with the necessary seriousness and apply his alleged deal making skills to overcoming Washington gridlock. His victory speech, and his behavior in meeting with President Obama, were encouraging, but nothing from him or his team since then has matched those sentiments. He has a high mountain to climb with people who have never trusted him, and a long track record of being vengeful in victory. For the good of the country, he will have to rise above that.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Democratic Party in the US?

The Democratic Party faces a period of intense soul-searching. Even if some partisans can console themselves with the thought that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, they will have to admit that her losing in states they thought they had wrapped up—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—combined with her inability, contrary to many summer hopes, to expand the electoral map, suggest that the party has much work to do to win over skeptical voters outside of the coasts and major inland cities.

After President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, many Democratic strategists and journalists assumed that demographic changes favored the party now and in the future. The significant drop in turnout among young people and African-Americans in this election, however, is a reminder that demography is not destiny. Voters do not materialize automatically, but need to be inspired anew by a candidate and a party in every election.

The party had good reasons to embrace Secretary Clinton as a nominee, despite her flaws. Now it faces a situation where there is no clear successor. The nominal leadership of the party—House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DNC Chair Donna Brazile, even progressive icons such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are products of the older generation. President Obama, for all the affection he enjoys, has proven unable to deliver significant voter turnout when his name is not on the ballot. The party will need to identify and cultivate younger leaders.

The biggest immediate question the Democrats will have to answer for themselves is whether they think that the best way for the party to find itself again is through constructive engagement with the Trump Administration or massive resistance to it. That will depend not only on what the Democrats prefer, but also upon how hard the Trump Administration and the Republican Majorities in Congress choose to advance a sharply ideological agenda.

How do you think this election has impacted the view of the US around the world?

As it happens, I published an essay before the election on international challenges facing the next President, which I immodestly commend to our readers and can be found here.

This election result has shocked world opinion. There’s no other way to put it. The reactions from our European allies have reflected the disorientation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even felt the need to remark that our alliance is built on common values that need to be respected, which many read as a rebuke of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. America’s rivals such as Russia and China are watching, encouraged in part by his rhetorical departures from the Obama Administration, but still nervous about what such an unpredictable personality will do with the powers of the Presidency.

A lot depends here as well upon how President-Elect Trump chooses to present himself. His rhetorical defenses of American interests may mean that his Administration will be less interventionist than his predecessors, which is not a completely bad thing. But the world needs a United States that will be cooperative and engaged. The question is whether his Administration will be more unilateral in both its interventions and its withdrawals which could threaten to add more instability to a very unstable world. The first foreigners the Trump campaign has reached out to in victory are right-wing populists such as Nigel Farage in Britain and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in France. That is not terribly encouraging.

Any predictions for four years from now?

This result has reinforced my belief that making predictions is a dangerous business. It’s much easier to be a historian and show how everything was inevitable.

For the moment, though I’ll make four general predictions:

  • The Republican majorities in Congress will try to push through the legislative agenda that has been blocked by President Obama—such as repeal of significant portions of the Affordable Care Act, and changes to the tax system, for starters. Those policy decisions, which will be necessary to keep the peace between Congress and President Trump, and to give them each a chance to show that they can deliver on their promises, will nonetheless disappoint a great many people who voted for Trump hoping that it would improve their economic situation.
  • The Democrats will be reduced to playing defense in Congress, trying to block as much as they can, and will place their hopes in an electoral backlash in the 2018 midterms elections.
  • President Trump will try to win the debate by deploying the same strategies he did in his campaign—large public rallies, attacks on the media, and harsh criticism of his political opponents.
  • The ensuing arguments will put significant strain on the already badly frayed American political and social fabric. And the whole world will be watching intently.

Fasten your seatbelts.