By Mike Lillis - 11-03-16 06:00 AM EDT
Liberals on and off of Capitol Hill are increasingly confident they have the political clout and congressional firepower to advance their favored policies in 2017.
Figures on the left were frequently exasperated with President Obama, particularly during his early years in office, for what they saw as a misguided, "post-partisan" approach to seeking deals with Republicans.
They're warning that Hillary Clinton, should she ascend to the White House, would struggle to win reelection if she took the same tack.
"We're hoping that she will be smart enough to know that if she were to go that route ... there's going to be a political price to pay for it, because it will demoralize her base heading into 2018 and, honestly, it may even jeopardize 2020," said Murshed Zaheed, political director of CREDO, a liberal advocacy group.
"If she wants to be more than a one-term president, she's going to have to work with the left. Period."
Progressives have always hailed Clinton as a champion of children's interests, healthcare reform and women's reproductive rights, among other things, and fully expect she'd fight for those positions in the White House.
But Clinton's close ties to Wall Street, her reputation for being hawkish on foreign policy and her past support for international trade deals have long made some liberals nervous.
That dynamic was on full display during Clinton's bruising primary battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), where her progressive credentials were constantly questioned.
Rep. Peter Welch, a liberal Vermont Democrat, said two forces are set to clash in the next Congress: One is the wave of unapologetic liberalism, unleashed by Sanders's primary bid, that's energized the party and given progressive groups "immensely more power;" the second is the reality of a Congress where Republicans will likely still control the House and retain filibuster powers in the Senate.
"That's the harsh legislative vote-count reality that looms large," he said.
Welch said Congress can make progress on a number of issues next year, but only if Republican leaders are willing to form alliances with Democrats and abandon their unwritten rule of rejecting legislation that lacks the support of 218 Republicans.
"That's an existential question they're going to have to answer in that first week," he said.
Liberal activists, meanwhile, are increasingly confident in their power to sway policy and strategy and prevent Clinton from forging compromise coalitions with GOP leaders. Their confidence is founded in part on the presence in Congress of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), liberal champions with enormous clout.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), said Clinton's campaign is "leaning heavily" on Sanders and Warren, who will provide "a pre-emptive chilling effect on bad behavior" if she does win the presidency.
Green said Clinton's success will hinge largely on two strategic elements: How aggressively she pushes her liberal campaign platform in the first 100 days; and whether she uses her bully pulpit - "her mandate," in Green's words - to rally public support for those policies and force GOP leaders to bring them to the floor. The latter is vital, Green said, considering Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to keep his Republican majority in the House after Nov. 8.
"The absolute best way to get something done is to push big, bold ideas, get the public on your side and force Republicans to the table," Green said. "Ryan has zero ability to declare something 'dead on arrival.' "
If Clinton adopts that strategy, "the Republicans will cave," Green said. "It's just that simple."
Ryan's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. But by any measure, the liberals - and Clinton - have plenty of obstacles in their way.
Although the Democrats have a shot at taking the Senate on Tuesday, their majority would be no more than razor thin - far shy of the 60 seats needed to barrel through Republican filibusters. The House, meanwhile, is expected to remain in the hands of Ryan and Republicans, who are virtually certain to stand firm in opposing elements of her agenda like gun control.
And Clinton, while she'd have some political capital by simple virtue of victory, remains a polarizing figure who is unlikely to have a "honeymoon" period of high popularity.
The combination of factors has conservatives also feeling confident they'd have the necessary clout to prevent Clinton from having her way. The scenario laid out by the liberals, they say, is a pipe dream.
"It seems very far fetched to think that Republican leadership would throw in the towel ... on things that are anathema to core values that most conservatives and Republicans share," said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group.
GOP leaders didn't surrender to the more popular Obama, Holler added, so "the notion that they're going to do that with Hillary Clinton doesn't jibe with reality."
In the eyes of liberal activists, though, the better strategy is to dig in and force GOP leaders to move bills under public pressure. That was the formula the Democrats used successfully in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013. Republican leaders opposed the Democrats' bill, but reluctantly brought it to the floor after months of attacks from liberal lawmakers and women's rights groups.
Ben Wikler, Washington director at MoveOn.org, said Clinton will find "tremendous grassroots support if she goes to the mat" for her liberal campaign platform. And if she doesn't, those same grassroots liberals are "emboldened and empowered" and "ready to hold her to account."
"We're heading from an electoral storm into a governance storm," Wikler said.
Zaheed said the perils of Obama's bipartisan approach have surfaced in James Comey's decision to launch a new review of Clinton's emails. Obama tapped Comey, a Republican, to head the FBI in 2013 despite warnings from liberals who were wary of his ideological leanings.
"His dream about post-partisanship, in many ways, was totally delusional," Zaheed said of Obama. "He drank the post-partisanship cocktail in nominating James Comey and it has completely blown up on his face."
Before the storm over the Clinton's email investigation, Comey was admired by many liberals for his refusal to sign off on President George W. Bush's surveillance programs, which involved a dramatic confrontation with Alberto Gonzales at the sickbed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The White House declined to comment on Wednesday. But supporters of the president note his liberal legislative accomplishments, including healthcare and Wall Street reform, and his string of executive actions in the face of intense blowback from conservatives.
As first orders of business, Clinton has vowed to push a sweeping infrastructure package and an overhaul of the immigration system. To that list, liberal advocates are urging several other measures central to her campaign, including legislation to make college debt-free - a proposal championed by Sanders during the primary.
Green said prioritizing that bill would both rally the Democratic base and put Republicans in the uncomfortable spot of opposing an idea that's popular with voters.
"Let Republicans obstruct. See what happens," he said. "That's not just an ideological thing; it's a political strategy."
Liberal advocates aren't just interested in what Clinton does after she steps into the White House. They also want her to be their champion beforehand. That means being a loud voice against any attempt in the lame duck to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a sweeping trade deal that's a priority of Obama - and filling the administration with officials who share their liberal worldview.
"The White House creates the terrain on which these battles will be fought," Wikler said of the nomination process.
Still, the preponderance of unknowns about the 2017 landscape has left even some of the most liberal Democrats warning that it's too early to be giving Clinton any strategic advice.
"You don't have any cards. You don't even know who won or lost," Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said this week by phone. "We have to look at those election results.
"Hell, we have to figure out if Ryan will even be Speaker."
--This report was updated at 9:41 a.m.