If she wins the White House, Hillary Clinton will face the daunting task of healing the national divisions exposed by a vicious campaign season.
Whether Clinton could knit the nation back together is an open question. Her supporters say she will do what she can, but that the GOP will have to play its part. Opponents argue that she is uniquely ill equipped for the task.
The former secretary of State has been a polarizing figure for decades. She is the most unpopular nominee of modern times, with the sole exception of her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump. To many conservatives, she represents everything that is wrong with liberal politics.
Yet Clinton has sought to make overt appeals to Republican voters. Invited to deliver a closing statement at the third and final presidential debate last week, she said that she was “reaching out to all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and independents — because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be.”
If Clinton wins, said former Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), “for the first time in our history, we will have a president who more than half the people don’t trust and don’t like. That means that, rather than having the historic honeymoon period — being given the benefit of the doubt for a time — she won’t have that, unless she creates it.”
Gregg, who is also a columnist for The Hill, served in the Senate at the same time as Clinton. He acknowledged that during her time representing New York “she aggressively crossed the aisle,” going out of her way to seek areas where bipartisan progress was possible.
But, he added, “since she left the Senate her positions have hardened, and she has moved very far left” — in part to rebut the challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during this year’s Democratic primary.
Many liberals, however, either don’t believe Clinton has moved to the left or doubt her sincerity in doing so. While all politicians are subject to pressures from both left and right, Clinton may have an unusually small amount of leeway.
Tad Devine, who served as a senior advisor to Sanders during the primary, said that he believed some progressives “will wait to see what her agenda is. If she pursues the agenda that was outlined in the Democratic platform, she will convert them into supporters. And, if she doesn’t, she will have to deal with a less-than-unified party, like President Carter in 1980.”
The parallel with Carter is ominous for Clinton. Democratic discontent with Carter fueled a primary challenge at the end of his first term from then-Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Although Kennedy’s bid had its share of missteps and ultimately fizzled, his candidacy weakened Carter before his eventual defeat by Ronald Reagan in the general election that fall.
Gregg suggested one possible way of threading the needle between competing political pressures.
A President-elect Clinton could convene a meeting with the leaders of the Senate and House before even taking office, he said, and outline issues on which bipartisan agreement ought to be possible: infrastructure and reform of the Veterans Administration being two examples. This would not require Clinton to forsake her campaign pledges, he said. Instead, she could simply run them along “a parallel track.”
But others are dubious that such an approach would work, especially with a Republican Party that may still be shell-shocked from the turbulent Trump candidacy.
While some Republican leaders in Washington, including Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), have made no secret of their differences with Trump, they have to be mindful of the power his supporters wield within the party.
A new poll from Bloomberg last week asked Republican voters whether Trump or Ryan better represented their own views. Fifty-one percent chose Trump, while only 33 percent favored Ryan.
It seems inconceivable that the Trumpian forces would accept GOP leaders cutting deals with Clinton on any issue of significance.
“I don’t think his people are going anywhere,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who was the campaign manager of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.
“Whether he gets 38 percent, 40 percent, or whatever, that is a pretty rock-solid group of people. If he loses, they are not going to decide it’s time to stay home and not be involved with politics. How does their party deal with all that? How it comes back together is more important than anything Hillary tries.”
There are some things Clinton can do right now to ameliorate these problems. Even in the closing days of the campaign, a more positive tone in her advertising could give voters a better sense of what she stands for, experts say. Clinton’s most memorable ads so far have been attacks on Trump.
Clinton could also focus on running up the score on Nov. 8. A thumping win could give her greater leverage in any negotiations with Capitol Hill Republicans — especially if she brought a significant number of Democrats into Congress on her coattails.
Even so, however, she will almost inevitably face critics who say her victory was a national repudiation of Trump, rather than a positive endorsement of her.
“There’s where the non-Trump Republicans will be: ‘We made a mistake, the media was too light on him,’ ” Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer predicted.
“It won’t be because she is a great candidate or there is some mandate for what she stands for. And many people — not just Republicans — will believe that argument, given how explosive Trump has been. It’s a plausible argument to many people.”
The political polarization of the United States had been underway for years before battle was joined between Clinton and Trump, fueled by forces like talk radio and the growth of social media.
The widening fissures have begun to affect the basic geography of American life.
In a 2014 Pew Research Center report, a full 50 percent of people with “consistently conservative” beliefs said it was important for them “to live in a place where most people share my political views.” Thirty-five percent of people with “consistently liberal” views said the same thing.
Another Pew report this summer found that the number of partisans who hold a “very unfavorable” opinion of the opposing party continues to rise. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats now feel that way — figures roughly three times as high as they were in 1994.
Findings like that underline the sheer scale of the challenges Clinton will face, even if she storms to victory on Election Day.
“The country is really at war many ways, rhetorically at least,” Devine said.