‘Steady Hand Hillary’

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 32-

This week:

  • Clinton’s strategy: Focus on Trump, not GOP
  • Huelskamp’s defeat sends a warning to conservatives
  • Ryan expected to win his primary easily

President 2016

The conventions are over, and an unpopular Hillary Clinton angles to win with the smallest popular-vote plurality share since her husband’s 1992 victory. Her plan has shaped up as an effort to campaign against Donald Trump specifically, rather than against conservative ideas in general. Can Republicans stop her?

Steady Hand Hillary? Hillary Clinton’s strategic message for the 2016 election has become quite clear in the week and a half since her convention ended.

There was more than one option that Democrats could have chosen. One option — which will likely crop up in competitive down-ballot races — is to campaign against “the party of Trump,” and to turn the race into an indictment of GOP policy based on Trump’s expressions of it.

But this is not the path that Clinton is taking, even if down-ballot Democratic candidates likely will.

Rather, Clinton — much like President Obama did in his convention speech — is treating Trump as a sui generis existential crisis for democracy. Based on polling, this attack could work as she strives to win all of the Obama states from 2012, plus perhaps a few more, such as Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina.

Clinton’s main dig against Trump, under this strategy, is not that he’s too conservative. Such an attack would probably fail the credibility test anyway. In total isolation from his personality, Trump’s ideology is not really too far from mainstream currents of political thought — some of which (the anti-trade business especially) are actually more often associated with Democrats.

Clinton is instead going after Trump’s personality — in particular his lack of constancy. Trump, she has repeatedly suggested, cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons because he can be so easily baited by tweets. He is, the Democratic messaging will suggest, simply too erratic to be given the power of the presidency. America needs a steady hand that can preserve the status quo in a chaotic world. She represents herself as that steady hand, and simultaneously represents Trump as the chaos option.

This is why, in recent speeches, nearly all of Clinton’s attacks are peculiar to Trump and could not be used in the abstract in any other election year. She repeatedly brings up Trump University, reminds her crowds that many Trump products are made overseas, that Trump employees are often foreigners brought in on visas, and various other well-worn attacks that were already launched at Trump during the primaries. And then she talks about stock Democratic policy ideas and offers platitudes.

Clinton’s speeches are, as a result, quite dull and make no news, but that’s kind of the point — she doesn’t have to make news, and she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want people to have to think about the fact that their voting for her, it’s more important that they vote for the viable non-Trump alternative.

She is the plain vanilla candidate. And she is counting on Trump to make news in ways that will damage him as she rolls along steadily.

It is highly doubtful that Clinton would actually refuse to debate Trump. But if she does decide to use the current imbroglio over debate schedules as an excuse to take that path, it would be perfectly consistent with this. The idea would be to send a message: “I don’t take my opponent seriously because he is nuts, and therefore I will not debate him.”

Benefits and drawbacks: Whether or not she takes it that far, the overall strategy represents a low-risk path of least resistance for Clinton. It has benefits as well as drawbacks.

For one thing, it’s a clever way for Clinton to avoid ideologically charged fights that might encourage fence-sitting conservatives to make up their minds to get behind Trump. When a race becomes an overt ideological battle, it’s a lot easier to unite the Right behind a candidate. Mitt Romney, widely distrusted by conservatives in the primaries, managed to unite them quite effectively in 2012, despite losing the election overall for other reasons. (Just to clear up a common misconception here: Romney did have a turnout problem, but it was not among conservatives. White Evangelicals, the largest and best proxy voting group to measure this, formed roughly the same share of the electorate in 2012 as they had in Bush’s 2004 victory, and gave Romney a slightly larger margin. This despite the fact that he is a Mormon.)

Another benefit of Clinton’s strategy is that it will rarely put her out on a limb. With the primary behind her, you will no longer hear of her introducing anything radical in terms of policy, or adopting lines that risk serious ridicule. This limits the land mines in her path to questions about her emails, which were always going to be a problem anyway.

Drawbacks? The main problem with the “steady hand” strategy of running too hard against Trump and Trump alone is that Clinton could win the election without much of a policy mandate. This kind of messaging could also limit her coattails in downballot races, because the idea of Trump as an existential threat doesn’t necessarily harmonize with the messages that will be used in other races against Republican candidates who are not Trump.

A Clinton plurality victory without a House majority would sharply limit what she could do in office. This would be especially true given that Democrats are bound to lose ground in the 2018 Senate class (Republicans have suffered three terrible elections in this class in a row) and that it is customary for incumbent presidents to suffer losses in their first midterm election.

House 2016

Kansas: The primary election defeat of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R, in Kansas’ First District came as a result of voter discontent and heavy spending by various interests, including agricultural ones. It serves as a warning for conservatives about fighting House leadership.

Huelskamp’s loss of his seat on the House Agriculture Committee figured heavily. It had been punishment for votes he had taken against Leadership under Speaker John Boehner. At the time in late 2012, Huelskamp called it a reprisal for his votes against budget and debt deals. “I promised to fight for conservative values,” he said at the time. “I voted exactly like I said I would and will continue to fight. But to be punished, removed from two committees, is stunning.”

Huelskamp survived the next election — the 2014 midterm — but in a 55 to 45 percent race against a primary challenger who spent practically nothing on his campaign. That was a clear sign of weakness that invited this year’s more robust challenge.

This defeat comes after several election cycles in which conservatives had gained ground by waging primaries against moderate incumbents. The warning to conservatives — which is perhaps less relevant under Speaker Paul Ryan than it had been under Boehner — is first that there are dangers in fighting leadership. One much pick one’s battles when doing so. The second is that local issues matter. Ideology is not enough to save you from the wrath of the voters if you fail to mind the home front.

Wisconsin: On Tuesday, Speaker Paul Ryan, R, will easily defeat his primary opponent, Paul Nehlen. Trump’s late endorsement of Ryan, after some reluctance, is more an acknowledgment of what is going to happen in this race than any sign of heartfelt support. The acrimony between the two men is as evident now as it was when Ryan reluctantly endorsed Trump after a similar delay.

Trump has only explicitly endorsed in two House races now — for Ryan, and for Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., who lost her House primary earlier in the year.