Hillary Clinton Needs to Start Campaigning Aggressively for a Democratic Congress

She has nothing to lose but a frustrating and ineffective beginning to her presidency. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The issues threatening to engulf Donald Trump’s candidacy and embroil him in a destructive civil war with congressional Republicans are offering Hillary Clinton a surprising new opportunity not only to become president but to work with a Democratic Congress. But she may have to seize that opportunity.

Up until now, a large segment of Clinton supporters, whether they were enthusiastic about her candidacy or simply resigned to supporting her as the lesser of two evils, mostly viewed her as a bulwark against the terrifying possibility of a Trump presidency. You can call that a reflection of her own lack of appeal, or of the unprecedented nature of someone like Trump becoming leader of the free world. In truth, blocking Trump was, until recently, the most important thing she would be likely to accomplish by winning: If Congress stays in Republican hands, she would be as powerless as Barack Obama has been the last six years in terms of moving legislation.

Now there’s a glimmer of hope for at least two years of frenetic legislative activity for Clinton if Democrats win the four net Senate seats and 30 net House seats they need for control of Congress. Democrats have long had even or better-than-even odds for winning the net four Senate seats needed to take over the upper chamber, assuming Tim Kaine has the tie-breaking vote as vice-president. What’s changed during the last two weeks of trouble for Trump and Republicans is that control of the House is once again in play. In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House seats by winning the national popular vote by 8 points. They need to gain 30 to win control this year. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Democrats leading by 10 points in the congressional generic ballot measuring which party voters support in House races. If that’s a solid trend rather than a blip, and Clinton’s own polling surge holds, a Democratic House is no longer a fantasy, though Republican gerrymandering and efforts to encourage ticket-splitting mean it’s still a bit of a long shot.

The payoff for a Democratic sweep makes going for it well worth the effort.

The old reality was nicely represented by the remark she made to New York Times Magazine columnist Mark Leibovich, which he used as the headline for his long thumb-sucker on her campaign: “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse.”

While that idea is a pretty good motivator for those who hate or fear Trump, in the end it’s not very inspiring. I used to have a boss who had a framed motto on his wall that I have never forgotten: “Avoiding disaster is an insufficient agenda.” For Clinton, it’s also unnecessary for the moment. Her long litany of policy proposals sometimes had the appearance on the campaign trail of being props: answers to the argument that she didn’t really have any new ideas. Now there’s a chance, if not an overwhelming one, that she can actually get some of them enacted, and without pretending she can talk more than a handful of congressional Republicans into helping her.

At a time when her main remaining challenge is energizing Democrats and left-bent independents, aggressively and explicitly campaigning for a Democratic Congress that can actually accomplish big things makes abundant sense. And besides, she might as well strike back at congressional Republicans who are pretty clearly pivoting to a “checks and balances” message that they’ll thwart anything Clinton tries to do. She can point to the choice down-ballot voters face of more gridlock or the pragmatic and generally popular agenda she’s outlined during the campaign.

In weighing this option, Clinton and her campaign team should realize they have nothing to lose other than the near-certainty of a presidency that is tragically limited by Republican obstruction in Congress. It would be difficult for her to lose to Trump at this point no matter what she does. And she might as well give herself a fighting chance to be successful in office. 

Why Clinton Should Campaign for a Democratic Congress