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Hillary’s Reckless Off-Ramp Strategy

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Hillary’s Reckless Off-Ramp Strategy

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Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.

published an article on August 22 arguing against a dangerous strategy apparently being pursued by the Clinton presidential campaign, as revealed in a hacked email discussion between DNC officials last spring. In an effort to expedite the defection of Republicans offended by their party’s nominee, the campaign was building up Speaker Paul Ryan as an exemplar of the GOP’s sensible, “normal” wing—all while wedging off Donald Trump as a dangerous exception to Republicanism past. I said this violated a sterling principal of sound politics: when your opponent—in this case the Republican Party—is drowning, you throw them an anvil, not a life raft.

At the time, I had no idea the Clinton campaign was busy inflating that very life raft. On August 25, Clinton’s strategy came to the fore. In a speech in Nevada, she officially anointed Ryan as the exemplar of the Republican Party’s sensible, “normal” wing, sidelining Trump as the dangerous (“alt-right”) exception. All this, of course, was intended to expedite the defection of Republicans offended by their party’s nominee.

The speech, I was dismayed to discover, proved quite popular among liberals, some of whom singled me out for not understanding the sublime cleverness of the “off-ramp” Clinton had provided for indignant Republicans. After all, the person who wins the most votes wins the presidential election. (I know, I know, Mr. Gore, I mean usually wins the presidential election.) Additionally, a president with more friends in Washington has a better chance of advancing her agenda than one with fewer friends—and that, simply, was all Clinton’s speech was about.

But it’s not so simple. For decades, the Democrats’ Achilles’ heel has been an obsession with strategizing to win this election, often at the expense of building strategic capacity to keep winning elections and control the agenda for the next several elections—and decades—to come.

Conservatives have always been better at that. “Hell, the catacombs were good enough for the Christians,” National Review publisher William Rusher intoned after Richard Nixon sold out conservatives at the 1960 convention, and sent them hunkering down once more for the long term. Four years later, organizing sedulously, they managed to nominate Barry Goldwater. They did not retreat after Goldwater’s landslide defeat; instead, they set to laying the groundwork for Reagan 16 years later. The annals of conservatism are replete with 30-year plans, self-described “Leninist” strategies, and campaigns to lard the federal bureaucracy with stealth conservatives and the law schools with quiet ideologues disciplined enough to keep their records clean from embarrassing pronouncements that might sour Senate judicial confirmation hearings long in the future.

Democrats, meanwhile, are just glad to pull off the next presidential election. The fact that the presidential victory is often followed by an agenda-crushing defeat two years later always comes as a surprise.

This year, we see the same short-term thinking in the celebration over the Republican apostates pledging their hearts to Hillary.

The latest Republican big fish to go Clinton is James Glassman, the George W. Bush Institute’s founding executive director. He’s also the con man who co-authored the book Dow 36,000. The paperback version came out shortly before the 2001 recession, just in time to tank the portfolios of the credulous who believed his buncombe that “Stock prices could double, triple, or even quadruple tomorrow and still not be too high.” Even so, Glassman was able to catapult from bestseller lists to the editorship of the online business site, Tech Central Station, which specialized, reporter Nick Confessore explained in 2003, in taking “aggressive positions on one side or another of intra-industry debates.” Which side it took depended on the interests of the Washington PR and lobbying firm that owned the site.

Because conservatism is fundamentally corrupt, Glassman was rewarded with the editorship of the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine, where he helped pump up the housing bubble with arguments for George W. Bush’s “ownership society” that home-buying should be made easier and that taxes on dividends must be cut. As he wrote in 2005: “People who own stocks and real estate—who possess wealth of their own—have a deeper commitment to their community, a more profound sense of family obligation and personal responsibility, a stronger identification with the national fortunes and a personal interest in our capitalist economy. (They also have a greater propensity to vote Republican.)”

For his slithering service, Bush named him his Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and put him in charge of selling the glories of the American way of life to the Middle East. After Bush’s second term ended, Glassman snagged his current position as executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.

But what’s the harm? Don’t right-wing grifters’ votes count the same as horny-handed tillers of the soil? Won’t the news that famous Republicans are breaking for Hillary help ordinary Republicans stomach the switch, too? It’s not like Glassman is going to be her treasury secretary. Democrats have an election to win, and it’s less than two months away—doesn’t Team Clinton want to pile up as many supporters as it possibly can?

The flaw in this argument is that it overlooks something: the potential problems come in the longer term. Large numbers of supporters of only glancing or provisional commitment to your governing agenda, shoehorned into your tent in time for Election Day, can become quite the liability for effectuating that agenda when it comes time to govern.

Just ask Jimmy Carter.

Carter was elected president in 1976 by riding a wave of disgust with untrustworthy government, a victory foreshadowed in 1974 by the election of a passel of what became known as Congress’s “Watergate Babies.” Many of these fresh-faced political youngsters retired as legendary liberal lions: Representatives George Miller and Henry Waxman, Senators Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd. A lot of them, however, were explicitly like Gary Hart. As I wrote in my book on the period, The Invisible Bridge:

Hart was the rock star of the 1974 Democratic candidates. . . . His outmaneuvered opponent, the once-popular two term conservative incumbent Peter Dominick, said he seemed to be “trying to get to the right of Attila the Hun. . . .” His stock speech, “The End of the New Deal,” argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory—that “if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.” It included lines like, “The ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was enacted in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke. But such claims did speak to the preconceptions of people whom Hart claimed must become the new base of the Democratic Party: the affluent suburbs, whose political power had been quietly expanding through 1960s via redistricting and reapportionment. He called those who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality,” who still thought the workers, farmers, and blacks of the New Deal coalition were where the votes were, “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” He held them in open contempt.

The 1976 elections brought even more not-so-liberal Democrats to Capitol Hill, while in the White House, Jimmy Carter wore contempt for the pet causes of the Eleanor Roosevelt-types (Keynesian deficit spending, unions) on his sleeve.

All in all, it was a complicated, transitional time in the history of the party. Carter also came into the White House pledging fealty to some ambitious liberal goals: a landmark full-employment bill that would include a government jobs program if unemployment fell below three percent; national health insurance; a law making it easier to join a union and harder for bosses to get away with punishing workers who did so; a federal agency devoted to advocating for consumers.

When the 95th Congress convened in January 1977, with 292 Democrats and 143 Republicans in the House and only 38 Republicans in the Senate, the universal presumption was that all of Carter’s initiatives would pass. None of them did.

There were many reasons for this. One of them was because Jimmy Carter simply didn’t want some of these laws to pass: that was the case for the full-employment measure. He nominally supported it because his advisers told him he had no choice if he wanted to remain a credible leader of the Democratic Party, as was the case with labor-law reform. He was foursquare for the consumer agency, however. He was even more passionate—it was his favorite campaign promise—about passing a progressive reform of the tax code.

In the end, each failed more miserably than the last. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill “passed”—in a form so eviscerated that it earned the nickname the “Humphrey-Hawkins-Hatch” bill, after conservative Republican freshman Orrin Hatch, who successfully gutted it with amendments. Consumer agency and labor-law reform fell to what were at the time the most aggressive corporate lobbying campaigns in history.

The tax-reform story was the most extraordinary of them all. In January 1978, Carter announced his ambitious plans to revise the tax code in order to make the rich and corporations pay their fair share. He was delivering on his most aggressive campaign promise: he would fix a tax code that he called, on just about every stop on the campaign trail in 1976, a “disgrace to the human race.” Ninety-six percent of the population would have seen benefits from the reforms he proposed. Drafting off their shocking success scuttling the consumer and labor bills, the right wing doubled down. Republicans introduced a radical reduction in corporate tax rates, promising the loaves-and-fishes deception that would become so familiar in the Reagan years—that the benefits would trickle down to enrich all Americans.

It didn’t even take Reagan’s election to get there. In October 1978, a Congress with more than two-to-one Democratic representation voted for the first time in history to make the tax code more regressive. In each of the progressive measures that was defeated, the deciding votes came from first- or second-term Democratic congressmen. The reason for this poor fortune for the New Deal legacy, paradoxically, was precisely what was understood to be the good fortune of the Democratic Party: habitual Republicans disgusted with their party after Watergate were voting for Democrats for the first time. Many of the Watergate Babies represented traditionally Republican suburbs. They went to Washington and voted their constituencies. It was one of the reasons—though there were many—that Jimmy Carter geared up to run for his second term with the albatross of a failed presidency around his neck.

The parallel to Hillary Clinton is partial, of course. If she wins, there will almost certainly be a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, not a Democratic supermajority. Unlike Jimmy Carter, all evidence—despite what the conspiracy theories of Hillary-haters on the left suggest—points to her as a politician who is publicly committed to a far more Rooseveltian vision of the economy. In a little-covered speech in August to the Detroit Economic Club—an audience of business people, as New York magazine reported—she “reiterated her opposition to the TPP in the strongest terms she’s ever used on that subject,” and “called for a public health-care option in all 50 states, free public-college tuition for the middle class . . . and paid family leave.”

Yet, as Politico reported, Team Clinton was simultaneously pursuing “a behind-the-scenes recruitment effort that’s been months in the making,” winning over Republicans disgusted by Trump, like failed Hewlett-Packard CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and Matt Higgins, former press secretary to Rudy Giuliani and McCain 2008. Leslie Dach, a former executive at Walmart (which just happens to be the most savagely anti-union corporation in America), has headed these outreach efforts since last spring. Was Dach vetted for her accord with the position, as Clinton put it in the Detroit speech, that “strengthening unions doesn’t just serve members, it leads to better wages and working conditions for all employees”? Would Higgins, the Giuliani flack, feel comfortable in a room with the Mothers of the Movement, the collective of mothers of victims of police violence who spoke so eloquently at the Democratic National Convention? Does the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute expect Clinton to aspire to the sterling example of George W. Bush’s public-policy accomplishments, in exchange for the votes Glassman intends to deliver?

Iwish I saw evidence that Team Clinton even cared about these concerns. As a campaign senior strategist said, “Campaigns are always looking for ways to build your coalitions of voters. To the extent we can add to that by appealing to some moderate Republicans and some Republican-leaning independents—that’s worth some energy. It’s not going to consume the campaign, but it is worth the energy.” You know when it’s not worth the energy? When it weakens your party in the long term.

Or, if it attenuates the coalition of legislators on Capitol Hill that will be needed to get done what Hillary Clinton says she wants done—if not in 2017, perhaps in 2019, when a Democratic House majority might be within more realistic reach. That was the fear expressed by the DNC’s communication director in the May 2016 email I wrote about in August: efforts “to embrace the ‘Republicans fleeing Trump’ side, but not hold down ballot GOPers accountable” might be great for getting more votes for Clinton, but these come at the price of fewer wins for Democratic congressional candidates.

What might pose even greater danger is success: if the Clinton people are right and Democrats up and down the ticket harvest greater-than-expected dividends with a “we’re not Trump, come on in, normal Republicans, the water’s fine!” message. Politicians are greedy and short-sighted, almost always placing electoral victory ahead of long-term legislative accomplishment. If Democratic congressional candidates outperform their own expectations and attribute their success to cross-over voters who are ideological twins of the Higginses, Glassmans, and Whitmans, once in office they may work to hold on to those voters.

If that happens, here is an all-to-predictable eventuality for 2018. Political parties are greedy, too, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the party could begin recruiting candidates who “build your coalition of voters” by “appealing to some moderate Republicans and some Republican-leaning independents.”

As I’ve written, we have been down that sad road before. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “aggressively recruited right-leaning candidates, frequently military veterans, including former Republicans.” Democrats won the battle, taking the House back from the Republicans for the first time since 1994. But they lost the war:

The 2007 majority proved to be a rickety one. Critics argue that, even where Emanuel’s strategy succeeded in the short term, it undermined the party over time. One of his winners, the football star Heath Shuler, of North Carolina, would not even commit to vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House, and was one of many Rahm recruits to vote against important Obama Administration priorities, like economic stimulus, banking reform, and health care.

The adventure ended with the biggest Republican House majority since the 1920s.

People will say this is an argument for purity. It’s actually a plea for practicality. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win the presidential election on November 8. That’s merely the battle for today, when anti-Trump votes come cheap. But this election is not just about rescuing the nation from Trump. It’s about rescuing the nation from conservatism. That’s the long march. It cannot be won with conservatives in tow.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo: Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent

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17 Comments

  1. Dominick Vila September 13, 2016

    Our Achilles heel, when it comes to politics, is not only our willingness to play down the excesses of the opposition, but our determination to work with them, and often support the advancement of policies that are diametrically opposed to everything the Democratic party stands for.
    Examples of this tendency include those that became known as “Reagan Democrats”, and the support W got immediately after 9/11, and for the remainder of his first term. The contrast between our willingness to work with those who overtly, and consistently, do everything they can to destroy us, politically, is our greatest weakness; and the way we work with them when they are in the minority is one of the most important reasons for our inability to win midterm elections, and our failure to win, and keep, State and local government seats.
    Politics is not for the faint hearten, or for the weak. In a country as politically divided as ours, only the most disciplined, loyal…and ruthless, succeed.

    Reply
    1. Theodora30 September 13, 2016

      Bill Clinton appointed Republican “Boy Scout” Louie Freeh to head the FBI. Freeh undermined Clinton at every turn, helping Ken Starr to bring Clinton down.

      Reply
      1. FireBaron September 13, 2016

        Whoa! Ken Star brought Clinton down? You mean that is why he did NOT get elected to a third term in 2000? I think you may want to check your facts on this one. Clinton won by a bigger margin in the 96 election than he did in 92. Hillary won her Senate seat in 2000. And what happened to Ken Starr? He lost his job at Baylor for helping in a Sex Scandal Coverup. Guess he didn’t really learn the lessons taught by Bill!

        Reply
        1. Theodora30 September 13, 2016

          Sorry. I meant to say helping Starr try to bring Clinton down. It didn’t work but it caused a lot of damage investigating a bogus scandal. Then a stupid sex scandal. I am amazed at how many people – even liberals still accuse Hillary of things that she was falsely accused of then. Not that the MSM ever tried to give people the facts – like the fact that before the NY Times hounded Bill into having an independent counsel appointed to investigate Whitewater, two Republican led investigations had cleared the Clintons of any wrongdoing. Jay Stephens led the first one for the RTC as part of the cleanup of Reagan’s S&L scandal, then Robert Fiske who was the special counsel who looked into Whitewater. This was all a taxpayers expense. Imagine if the media had highlighted those results instead of ignoring them as many outlets or burying them on the back pages. When Hillary tried to point this out she was ridiculed.

          Reply
          1. AgLander September 13, 2016

            Bill Clinton was impeached in December of 1998 for perjury and also disbarred from practicing law, the tarnished image of which he will carry with him to his grave……now what were you saying again?

            Reply
          2. JPHALL September 13, 2016

            Do not forget to add that he was not convicted! Also he was only disbarred for five (5) years.

            Reply
          3. AgLander September 14, 2016

            …..”only” five years! A window into the twisted amoral brain of a liberal!

            Reply
          4. JPHALL September 14, 2016

            Amoral? No! Just realistic. I live in the real world not your Con fantasy one. Subject: Re: Comment on Hillary’s Reckless Off-Ramp Strategy

            Reply
  2. charleo1 September 13, 2016

    Conservatives, Liberals, Loyalists, Revolutionaries, Authoritarians, Egalitarians. The competition for supremacy is inherent to our system, and so, never ending. What is drastically different however, is the goal, and the extent to which each is willing to go in pursuit of that goal.

    For example, if the village to be captured is a Conservative one, the tact of the broad minded, inclusive Populist-Progressive, is to talk, to trade, and attempt to undertake principled compromise in order to find that common ground Liberals forever in their hearts believe is always there. As unity is always better than division they reason.
    But the price of that unity the Conservative ultimately demands, is usually nothing less than surrender. We win, you lose. Take it, if you care about the village. Or leave it. And we’ll hide in the tall grass, and burn all the villages to the ground, and blame you.. Your choice.

    Barack Obama said this belief that he would find enough Republicans willing to work with him in good faith in a time of crisis was his greatest disappointment as President. His own baseline optimistic faith as a Democrat that engendered his “Yes We Can,” motto. Was countered with Conservatism’s take no prisoners “We hope he fails!” So sadly Mr. President, they are what they are. It is their religion, the alter at which they worship, their reason for being, And the folly of every well intentioned Democrat who refuses to believe that, and so deal with them accordingly.

    Reply
  3. RED September 13, 2016

    Yes, “rescuing the nation from conservatism.” Although I think a better way of looking at it would be more like eradicating conservatism, like the disease it is. Much like we have eradicated polio and the damage it does to human beings, conservatism must also be eradicated and the damage it does to the mind and soul must be stopped.

    Reply
  4. A. D. Reed September 13, 2016

    The problem as I see it is that Democrats have a short-term vision for one simple reason: their goal in getting elected is to govern, and they know that to govern means to find compromise and middle ground in making step-by-step progress toward long-term goals. As Obama said, you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, have no interest in governing. They hate government of, by, and for the people. What they seek is power, and therefore they turn all their attention to the long-term goal of how to gain and maintain permanent power (remember “the permanent Republican majority”?).

    To that end, they are willing (and can afford) to put vast resources into their work in the catacombs. Hence beginning in the 1970s they started pushing to end Civics education in high school, knowing that in the long run an uneducated public would be more susceptible to their anti-government message. They started taking over local school boards, and the Texas textbook commission, 35 years ago. They planned for the 2010 mid-term elections for years, putting resources into taking over state governments so they could gerrymander permanent legislative majorities, even when losing the popular vote (as in NC, where I live). They see politics not as a game but as a blood sport.

    The Democrats want to govern, which requires the consent of the governed, i.e., the acceptance of the legitimacy of government.The Republicans want to rule (which is why Trump loves Putin), and that requires hatred of the government and acceptance of a boss.

    Frankly, as a patriot who loves my country and its Constitution, I’d rather we lose some elections and keep striving for a better America and a better world than put all our energy into perpetual control of the levers of power.

    Reply
  5. Otto T. Goat September 13, 2016

    Reagan’s economic reforms worked.

    Reply
    1. charleo1 September 13, 2016

      For the 1% who continue to enjoy their 30% tax cut, and exploding the public debt, Reagan’s trickle down scam worked really well. As for the rest of us, we’re still making payments on Reagan’s wonderful economic reforms.

      Reply
    2. johninPCFL September 13, 2016

      Well, in truth it was the military spending that broke the recession. He added $4T to the national debt (remember: deficits don’t matter).
      The first six years of his term were mired in recession bordering on depression.

      Reply
    3. I Am Helpy September 13, 2016

      No they didn’t, Adolf.

      PS: Reagan had a dangerous health condition that he concealed from the public, and he gave arms to Iranians as a ransom for hostages.

      Reply
  6. dtgraham September 13, 2016

    The article points out that Jimmy Carter also came into the White House pledging fealty to some ambitious liberal goals but in the end simply didn’t want many of these goals to pass. In other words, his earlier pledges were purely calculated for political purposes. Ted Kennedy knew that Carter had the Democratic numbers to accomplish what he claimed to want and didn’t have to do much or any bi-partisan reaching out and, in effect, self sabotage. Hence the 1980 primary challenge. Hillary won’t have those Democratic numbers but history will repeat itself in other ways in my opinion.

    As if her choice of VP didn’t signal her true intentions sufficiently, look at her transition team. It’s largely a murderers row of Republican-lite corporate blue dog Democrats. The Clinton Democratic Leadership Council lives again. Those changes of mind on policy issues during the primaries to fend off Bernie Sanders aren’t likely to be followed up on with any vigour at all. With a batcrap Republican Congress, she wouldn’t accomplish much anyway but what GOP legislation will she sign off on and not veto…like Bill did in the 90’s? That’s the question.

    She’ll “work” with them all right. As everyone is aware, the modern Republican party wants to find compromise and middle ground in order to make step-by-step progress towards long term progressive goals. SURE they do. Riiiiight.

    Her selling point? She’s not Donald Trump.

    Reply

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