With her American Legion speech this week encouraging Republicans (albeit mostly ineffectively) to view her as the candidate of their precious doctrine of American exceptionalism, there is no longer much doubt that Hillary Clinton is going out of her way to let members of the GOP know that crossing the partisan barricades to vote for her does not require an abandonment of their old creeds and battle cries. It’s hardly the first time she’s done that, and it probably won’t be the last.
It is not as though this is the only tack Clinton could be taking. She could be trying much harder to tie Trump to a generally unpopular Republican Party — to the detriment of both party and candidate — instead of constantly distinguishing him from the GOP. Yes, Trump’s background and positions on some issues horrify a lot of Republican elites. But he has embraced key elements of conservative orthodoxy, too, including tax cuts for the rich, climate-change denial, an abortion ban, Second Amendment absolutism, and, most recently, the idea that government assistance has enslaved African-Americans. Even Trump’s scary rhetoric on immigration and torture and killing women and children has been welcomed, not spurned, in large swaths of the GOP. While it is possible to argue, as Clinton regularly does, that Trump has “taken over” a Republican Party that was a different kind of elephant before he appeared, it is not so clear the takeover was hostile or accidental.
The biggest problem with Clinton’s outreach to Republicans, however, is that it does not seem to be working, at least at the level of actual rank-and-file voters. As I noted in a recent post on reasons for optimism in Trump-land, there are relatively few signs in polling so far of significant crossover voting by either partisans or partisan-leaning independents. Perhaps Team Clinton sees that and is under the impression that doubling down on the outreach strategy will make a difference. That remains to be seen.
If appeals to Republicans do begin to work for Clinton, other Democrats may wonder whether in “reaching out” to Republicans as Republicans Clinton and her campaign are making it easier for defectors from Trump to split their tickets and follow the Old Faith down-ballot.
That’s hardly an idle question. As Ron Brownstein explains today, the degree of ticket-splitting is the knife’s edge on which control of the Senate in 2017 now largely rests.
You can certainly make the argument that it’s a bad time for the Clinton campaign to join with #NeverTrump conservatives in making the case that good Republicans can vote to abandon the top of the ticket without turning their coats. Totally aside from issues of party solidarity, a Hillary Clinton administration trying to govern with a Republican Congress will be in many respects a sad and straitened affair. Even if the down-ballot effect of her outreach to Republicans is very marginal, it could matter in close races.
So whether or not it works in terms of peeling off Republican voters, Clinton’s outreach to them is risky and not really necessary. Yes, in the long run converting today’s Republicans into tomorrow’s Democrats is part of a strategy of building a governing majority that can put the Donkey Party back in that breathtaking moment in November of 2008 when all things seemed possible. But the changing nature of the electorate will do more to make that happen than all the “bipartisanship” or cross-partisan outreach you could want. And in the heat of this year’s presidential battle, taking the fight to the partisan enemy makes more sense than begging it to surrender.