What Could Presidents Trump, Cruz or Clinton Actually Achieve?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks about the results of the Michigan, Mississippi and other primary elections during a news conference held at his Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, on March 8. Joe Skipper/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

With the possibility of an independent presidential candidacy now safely behind us—Michael Bloomberg having honorably ruled out the possibility of enabling a Trump win in November, and Donald Trump being in too deep on the Republican side to do the necessary groundwork for a fallback plan—we are now looking at three people who could plausibly be sworn in as president in January 2017: Hillary Clinton, Trump and Ted Cruz.

Less plausible, but still possible, are Bernie Sanders, John Kasich and the fast-fading Marco Rubio, although the latter two are only imaginable after a brokered convention.

And if we were willing to play the "what if something truly weird happens and a party has to go with someone who did not do well in the primaries (or even run)?" game, we could also look at Joe Biden, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as imaginable nominees.

I do not, however, want to focus here on the mechanics of how someone could become president. Instead, I want to think about what the three front-runners would actually do—both in terms of likely accomplishments and expenditure of political effort, even if not ultimately successful—were they to win the presidency.

Here, I will focus only on those three most plausible winners, in part because of space limitations, but also because the others seem—especially because their only plausible paths to a nomination are contingent on unprecedented dysfunction within their parties—like general election losers.

(That might not be true of Bernie Sanders, whose close win in Michigan makes it somewhat more likely that he could win the nomination during the primaries, but he would still face long odds in the general election.)

With Hillary Clinton, the story is fairly easy to sketch out. If she wins, she will end up facing an undaunted Tea Party–led Republican majority in the House, and most likely (but by no means a sure thing) a Democratic-majority Senate. 

Her opposition, fueled by decades of anti-Hillary hysteria on the right, would be utterly intransigent, so that nothing would happen legislatively. It would become almost impossible to fulfill even the most basic responsibilities of governing. 

A Democratic Senate would change the filibuster rules to allow her to fill her Cabinet posts and appoint judges—no small matter!—but every budget would be an epic battle, including (as I described in a Verdict column and a Dorf on Law post several months ago) more debt-ceiling brinksmanship.

Clinton would, therefore, have to exercise aggressive executive authority. This, in turn, means that she would be especially careful to make appointments to all federal agencies to maximize her chances to get useful things done. 

This is not just a matter of high-profile issues, such as getting the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration to issue new regulations on politically salient problems like climate change or cigarettes (or even getting the CDC to study gun violence). It is also, importantly, the process of choosing people to do all of the little things that matter, such as getting the National Labor Relations Board to be somewhat progressive, or putting competent people in place at the Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and so on.

It is this latter issue that, I think, possibly differentiates Trump from everyone else on the Republican side. Even though Ted Cruz is obviously the candidate of the most retrograde fundamentalist Christian activists, any of the Republicans would surely put in place George W. Bush–like screening processes that would put religious extremists and movement conservative true believers in every available position. (Remember the scandal involving U.S. attorneys under W?) 

Is there any reason to believe that Rubio, Kasich, Ryan or Romney would resist the pressure to put such people in place, knowing that the success of their presidencies—as well as their re-elections—would crucially depend on keeping the party's activist base happy?

It is not clear, however, that Trump would follow that path. True, his only plausible strategy for winning in November involves convincing enough of the Republican leadership class that they can work with him, but he strikes me as someone who would simply not be moved by claims that he must put a Monica Goodling–like character in a key position in his administration to hire religious zealots. 

It is also true that he might not care enough to say no, but Trump is the only Republican candidate or candidate-in-waiting whose under-the-radar governing team might not be completely captured by the crowd that ran things under Bush. That is not a reason to feel good about Trump, of course, but it is useful to remember just how many ways the not-at-all-moderate alternatives to Trump would do damage to the country.

What about the high-profile issues on which a president must make policy decisions? As noted above, Clinton's presidency would surely be an exercise in gridlock. Nothing that she proposed would be taken seriously on Capitol Hill, and she would veto anything that came out of the House. 

Cruz is a more interesting story. If he were to win, both the House and the Senate would continue to be controlled by Republicans, because a country that voted for Cruz would certainly not swing five Senate seats to the Democrats. Undivided government!

On the other hand, Cruz is "the most hated man in Washington," and most especially in the Senate. (Fun fact: If you type "Cruz mo" into Google, you do not have to continue typing, because the first two suggested matches are often "Cruz most hated" and "Cruz most hated man.") John McCain, in particular, hates his guts. Mitch McConnell is still angry about Cruz calling him a liar on the floor of the Senate.

This would not stop Cruz from getting a lot of bad things passed (like repealing the Affordable Care Act), but it is at least imaginable that the Senate could become a roadblock for Cruz on many issues, and not just on psychopathic ideas like carpet-bombing the Middle East. For example, although it is easy to imagine the House voting to eliminate the IRS, would the Senate really go along?

The most perversely interesting character, of course, is again Trump. What would he actually do after taking the oath of office? He says a lot of scary, terrible things.

I agree with all of the people who say that a Trump victory in November is too horrifying to contemplate, because of the possibility that he might follow through on some of his worst impulses—and impulse control is not his strong suit, to say the least.

And even if he never follows up on those specific possibilities, simply having an openly racist xenophobe in the White House would be a disaster—not that much worse than electing not-as-openly-racist xenophobes like Cruz, Ryan, or the others, but still worse.

Still, I find myself wondering just what a post-election Trump would actually care about. Even regarding Trump's infamous border wall, a pro-Trump member of Congress has recently admitted that Trump's in-reality policy would simply amount to an incomplete wall supplemented by hi-tech surveillance—a continuation of current policy.

Once Trump realized that he could not round up even a fraction of illegal immigrants (assuming that he has not already come to that conclusion), would he simply lose interest?

Even Trump's Day One to-do list is a bit odd, and hard to take seriously: "First thing is knock out some of the executive orders done by our president." OK, which ones? I do not doubt that he would change some things, but it is difficult to know how, and on what.

His other priorities? "[O]n border where people can pour into [the] country like Swiss cheese." That is not something that can be taken care of on Day One. It would require actual time and attention, and as I described above, he might not care enough to follow through on something that is actually difficult to accomplish (if, indeed, it can be accomplished at all).

What else? "I would knock out Obamacare." Maybe, and maybe Republicans in Congress will send him a bill that would provide an alternative, or instead simply take us back to the bad old days of people losing coverage for pre-existing conditions and all that.

I do take this possibility seriously, because the ACA is a true advance in U.S. health care policy, but it does not differentiate Trump from any of his rivals, who have taken a blood oath to repeal that very good law. And again, I could at least imagine Trump not actually caring enough about the ACA to go along.

Trump's final Day One priority? "Take care of our vets and military." Excellent. How? Again, can you do this in one day, and without spending money? 

Trump also has made vague-but-insane statements about taxes (even more insane than his opponents' plans), and it is possible that he would sign any regressive tax bill that came across his desk.

I guess I am picturing a situation in which Trump soon realizes that being president is a lot of work, at which point he decides not to be an actual president. This is not a good situation, of course. 

But he could simply decide to spend his time saying (but not doing) outrageous things, instead making a big deal about putting a gold "T" over the portico of the White House, and saying (and tweeting) nasty things about a growing chorus of critics.

I am not willing to bet on any of that, but I do know that Cruz would tirelessly push a terrible agenda. Trump's ego-driven attention-deficit disorder, on the other hand, could actually make him substantively meaningless.

Like his buddy Sarah Palin, Trump could even simply decide to resign after he becomes bored. The other aspects of a possible Trump presidency are, again, truly terrifying, but it is interesting to think about the consequences of electing a man who truly seems not to know or care what he would do if he were ever allowed near the Oval Office.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and professor of law at George Washington University.