January 10, 2017

As hearings begin to confirm Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, it appears likely that his confirmation will be one of the most contentious, and for good reasons.  Sessions is one of Trump’s most hardline nominees, and is in a position where he could exercise the most influence, particularly over areas such as immigration and civil rights.  Because of this, it is very likely that Sessions will be opposed by a good number of Democrats.  Despite the opposition invoked by Sessions, I don’t think he is the cabinet nominee most likely to be rejected by the Senate.  That title goes to Rex Tillerson, and the reason why could provide important lessons for Trump in dealing with Congress for the rest of his term.

The opposition to Sessions stems largely from his position far to the political right, and comes mostly from Democrats.  However, due to his service in the Senate and strong resume, Senate Republicans are likely to stick together and vote unanimously for his confirmation.  Because Republicans hold a majority, and Harry Reid in his infinite wisdom chose to essentially do away with the filibuster when Democrats had the majority, Democrats thus have little chance of stopping him.  By sticking to the right and holding together his coalition in the Senate, Sessions is likely to be confirmed with nothing more than a lot of noise from the left.

Rex Tillerson faces a less contentious confirmation process, but is much more likely to be rejected.  This is because the opposition to Tillerson is not as ideological as the opposition to Sessions, and not likely to fall along party lines.  There are a number of Republicans, including Marco Rubio and John McCain, who may well defect depending upon how the hearings go.  Because he can elicit opposition from both sides of the aisle, Tillerson could be rejected despite being less hardline than Sessions.

This would be an interesting lesson to send to Trump to begin his term in office.  Essentially, the lesson that would be drawn from this would be that, if you want to pass your agenda, forget about bipartisanship and take a hardline, right-wing stance.  Focus on holding together your party by appealing to your base, and forget about attracting support from the other side of the aisle.  However, before he takes this lesson to heart, he should look to the recent past for a stark warning.

This is essentially how President Obama has governed for the past eight years.  When elected, he held a majority in both houses of Congress and used it to force through the Affordable Care Act.  The bill passed with no Republican support and some opposition from Democrats, but President Obama held his party together enough to pass it.  As a result, two years later his party lost the House of Representatives, never to regain it, and though the President himself managed to win reelection, he didn’t manage to get anything done on his domestic agenda due to his antagonistic relationship with the other party.  In eight years, the only thing President Obama managed to accomplish was the Affordable Care Act, and now that he’s left the other party in complete power, that is likely to be eliminated.  In effect, President Obama’s partisanship led to him spending eight years as President and accomplishing nothing.  President-Elect Trump should take note if he finds himself tempted to pursue his agenda the same way.

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