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Dan Inouye is dead, Barack Obama is on his way out and Donald Trump will be our next president.
Add to that a Republican-controlled House and Senate and things sure don’t look good for Hawaii’s left-leaning congressional delegation.
“I don’t think Hawaii can expect any favors from the federal government anytime soon,” said Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii political science professor and director of the school’s Public Policy Center. “We have a liberal, junior delegation that will be in Congress with a Republican president and a Republican Congress. They’re not going to have a lot of influence.”
Hawaii’s congressional clout has been fading ever since Inouye’s death in December 2012. Inouye was the most senior member of the U.S. Senate when he died, and was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which dishes out federal dollars.
“We 48 Democrats are the only institutional bulwark against total Trumpism.” — Sen. Brian Schatz, referring to Senate Democrats’ ability to filibuster
But even before his passing, Inouye’s role as Hawaii’s political benefactor had been diminished by a decision in 2011 — spearheaded in large part by newly elected Tea Party Republicans in the House — to eliminate congressional earmarks, which legislators often used to fund pet projects in their districts.
Obama’s presidency brought additional standing to the Aloha State, however, if only because he’s from here and has a better understanding of Hawaii’s issues than many politicians in Washington.
Under his administration, the U.S. Department of Interior laid out a pathway for government-to-government relations with Native Hawaiians and quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Honolulu also hosted the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which brought global attention to the islands as Obama laid out his vision for a U.S. pivot to Asia.
But it’s a new world under President-elect Trump, who doesn’t have many connections to the island outside of having his name stamped on a 38-story luxury hotel and condominium building in Waikiki.
Trump is considered one of the most divisive and controversial presidential candidates from a major party in recent memory. Many have said there has been no one quite like him in the history of American politics. His incendiary language — particularly as it relates to immigration and terrorism — borders on outright racism and bigotry, and his views on women have been described as sexist and misogynistic.
He also claimed to believe, until recently, that Obama had lied about being born in Hawaii.
No one really knows what a Trump presidency will look like. He already appears to be backing off some of his campaign promises, which include deporting millions of undocumented workers, dismantling Obamacare, revamping America’s infrastructure and building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border and making our southern neighbor pay for it.
Still, there seems to be little common ground between Trump and deep-blue, multicultural Hawaii, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won 61 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 29 percent.
But the president-elect isn’t the biggest obstacle facing Hawaii’s delegation. That continues to be the Republican-controlled Congress.
“Beyond the results of one election … the deeper tragedy is that as Americans we have become alienated from each other.” — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
“You still have this fundamental fact that a highly disciplined Republican majority controls the Senate and the House, which has much more control over influencing the delegation than Trump will have,” said Neal Milner, a retired University of Hawaii political science professor and local pundit, who writes a column for Civil Beat. “Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, and you still had what we have now, which is a Republican Senate and Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Our delegation would have been significantly limited in terms of their influence.”
One thing Hawaii has going for it is its geographical importance to the U.S. military. That means federal dollars should continue to flow, especially if Trump follows through on his promises to boost military spending.
Colleen Hanabusa, who was sworn in Monday to represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, already has experience navigating a hostile political environment in Washington. She was first elected to Congress in 2010, the same year Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.
Hanabusa acknowledged that the political environment is still defined by partisan gridlock, but she’s hoping there will be at least some opportunities to work with her GOP colleagues. She noted that Trump’s views are not universally accepted by those in his party, which could result in unexpected partnerships between Democrats and Republicans.
“Remember, it is still the Congress and the Senate that set the policy of the United States, the president is the implementer of that policy,” Hanabusa said.
“Because Donald Trump doesn’t come with a resounding mandate from his own party, maybe this is going to be an opportunity for Congress and the Senate to jointly act as policymakers by setting the policy for the United States versus Donald Trump,” she said. “And I think that’s what we have to hope for.”
Sen. Brian Schatz was similarly hopeful when discussing the prospects of working with Republicans in his own chamber. Because Republicans still fall short of the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster, Democratic senators retain some power.
Top staffers working for Senate Republicans have already begun reaching out to Schatz’s office seeking to partner on legislation once Trump is president. Schatz, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he also doesn’t worry too much about Hawaii losing federal dollars just because Republicans are in control.
“Remember, it is still the Congress and the Senate that set the policy of the United States, the president is the implementer of that policy.” — Rep. Colleen Hanabusa
“I’ll be vigilant, but as they say in the Senate, there are actually three political parties: Democrats, Republicans and appropriators,” Schatz said. “And the appropriators will continue to collaborate on a bipartisan basis. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
But Schatz admits that Democrats aren’t in a good position, particularly on climate change and immigration. He said there will be times when Democrats try to use the same tools Republicans have during the Obama administration to block legislation.
“We 48 Democrats are the only institutional bulwark against total Trumpism, and so our job is to collaborate where appropriate but also to resist when it’s required,” Schatz said. “It remains to be seen how the president-elect will govern, but we have to assume that he’s going to try to do many of the things that he talked about doing, and some of those are objectionable in the extreme and some of those are just illegal.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono is the only member of Hawaii’s delegation who knows what it’s like to work in Congress under a Republican president. She was in the House of Representatives in 2007 and 2008 during George W. Bush’s last two years in office.
Hirono told Civil Beat on election night that Democrats will have to put many of their policy goals, such as increasing the minimum wage and implementing comprehensive immigration reform, on hold now that Trump and the Republicans are in power. She also called the billionaire businessman a unique threat because of his erratic behavior.
“I think a Trump presidency would interject a lot of uncertainty and instability into everything you can think of,” Hirono said before the results were final. “Because as I’ve watched Donald Trump and his candidacy he has taken potshots at every minority group and he has said things like he knows more about ISIS than all of our generals.
“I happen to sit on both the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and I would say that there is no way Donald Trump knows more about ISIS than our generals and our other people who pay attention to that part of the world.”
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she sees opportunities both at home and abroad in a Trump presidency. She said that his statements about rebuilding the country’s infrastructure could help some of the rural communities in her district.
But she’s also keen on holding him to his promise to stop what she describes as a “counterproductive, illegal, regime-change war” in Syria that she says is bolstering support for terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
On Veterans Day, Gabbard’s campaign sent out a letter to her supporters in which she discussed her thoughts about the recent election. While she did not mention Trump by name, Gabbard alluded to “a bitter, divisive campaign season that has left deep, open wounds for millions of Americans.”
Her letter went on to say:
There’s much that remains unknown about what we can expect in the months to come, but what I do know is that now more than ever our progressive movement requires focus and an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. Beyond the results of one election, however, the deeper tragedy is that as Americans we have become alienated from each other. Beneath the anger, distrust and divisiveness is a pervasive anxiety that we are becoming unglued instead of coming together as a nation.”
She said it will be important to set differences in politics aside and seek out common ground. But she also made clear that compromise shouldn’t mean sacrificing one’s values. She reiterated some of that stance to Civil Beat on Monday.
“My job is to represent Hawaii and to work for the people of Hawaii and the people of this country,” Gabbard said. “It’s about putting service to the people over politics. That’s what our constituents expect and that’s what they deserve.”
“I happen to sit on both the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and I would say that there is no way Donald Trump knows more about ISIS than our generals.” — Sen. Mazie Hirono
No matter what Trump does once he’s sworn in, Democrats have little maneuverability until they can either take retake control of the White House or at least one of the congressional chambers.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says Democrats right now are scrambling to figure out why they lost a presidential election they expected to win, and what they can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
While he said Hawaii’s congressional influence is waning, there will be opportunities for members of the delegation to gain notoriety, particularly if they take a hard-line stance against policies pushed by the Trump administration.
“I’m not sure how much of a silver lining there is for them,” Skelley said. “But for Democrats in general I think the attitude they need to have is that Donald Trump does not have a very good favorability rating. He’s probably going to have a very short honeymoon.”
Democrats might be able to use that to their advantage in 2018 and 2020, he said.
“They’ve suffered this unexpected loss and now they need to rally,” Skelley said. “The Democratic delegation from Hawaii can be a part of that.”