Is Hillary Clinton Hurting Her Party’s Chances in Congress by Playing It Too Safe?

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Two Clinton candidacies separated by 20 years, but subject to some of the same complaints from Democrats.
Photo: Diana Walker / Liaison Agency, Sean Proctor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are increasingly convincing indications that Hillary Clinton has made a strategic decision to stonewall on the email and Clinton Foundation controversies in hopes of “running out the clock” and winning the presidency without being forced to address sticky questions on such matters. Most of the talk right now revolves around the impact of this tactic on Clinton’s actual odds of becoming the 45th president. Is stonewalling ever smart? Would engaging with scandalmongers just validate them and help obscure the many things about Donald Trump that dwarf even the worst assumptions about Clinton?

If HRC’s campaign continues to (a) refuse to talk about emails and Foundation financing while (b) maintaining a steady but unspectacular lead in the presidential polls, then another question will surely begin to emerge: Is a too-cautious Clinton sacrificing her party’s prospects of a big landslide election that takes back Congress?

If that question rings a bell, it could be because very similar concerns were expressed two decades ago about another Democratic presidential candidate with a very similar last name. The latter stages of Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign infuriated House Democrats, in part because he talked a lot about issues (welfare reform, trade policy, and fiscal policy) on which he disagreed with them. This aspect of Clinton’s campaign is what his 1995–1996 chief political strategist (sidelined during the latter stages of the reelection campaign by revelations about his adventures with a prostitute) Dick Morris notoriously called “triangulation.”

But the alleged Clinton betrayal of congressional Democrats in 1996 went beyond “triangulation”: The Big Dog did very little to share the political or financial wealth with down-ballot Democrats, and more or less coasted to a victory over the hapless Bob Dole with extremely limited coattails. Democrats won only two net House seats after spending much of the cycle anticipating a reversal of the Republican Revolution of 1994. And they actually lost two net Senate seats. There was also (in a particularly eerie foreshadowing of two different aspects of the current race) a simmering scandal involving alleged Chinese efforts to influence U.S. politics via contributions to the Democratic National Committee; the Clinton-Gore campaign pretty much ignored it. This, too, was widely thought to damage Democratic prospects down-ballot.

I happened to attend a House Democratic Caucus retreat early in 1997, and the anger at the newly reelected president was palpable. Morris’s sidekick Mark Penn was supposed to be there to debate fellow-pollster Stan Greenberg over the meaning of the 1996 elections, and when it was announced that Penn had been delayed by an appointment at the White House, a growl of offended fury swept through the room.

So far there’s nothing like this sort of tension between Hillary Clinton and congressional Democrats — many of whom, after all, recently went to the mats to help her head off Bernie Sanders’s primary challenge. But it’s not hard to imagine some heat rising if HRC floats into the leaf-changing season with a modest but steady lead over Trump even as visions of a big party landslide fade. It is indeed likely that playing rope-a-dope with Trump and the media over scandal mania is the safe route to victory, and in our winner-take-all system for presidential elections, a narrow Clinton win gives her as much executive-branch power as a landslide. But Democrats rightly hope for a top-of-the-ticket-driven wave that will capsize the campaigns of House and Senate Republicans who are in close races. And down-ballot Democrats can and should argue that HRC’s ability to succeed as president depend strictly on the kind of support she can expect in Congress. It remains to be seen if such protestations have an effect on a presidential candidate famed for caution.