By Robert Reich
The Clinton campaign is relentlessly focusing on the defects of Donald Trump rather than the defects of the Republican agenda. That’s understandable, and it could be a winning strategy. But it has pitfalls.
The campaign’s goal is to attract a wide swathe of voters who might ordinarily lean Republican on issues, as well as unenthusiastic Democrats who need the specter of a Trump presidency to get to the polls.
As Hillary Clinton told a crowd a few weeks ago at the American Legion convention, “this is not a normal election” and “the debates are not the normal disagreements between Republicans and Democrats.”
One new Clinton ad, for example, shows young women looking at themselves in mirrors while sexist comments by Trump are played in the background.
Another features clips of GOP leaders criticizing Trump in TV interviews, and closes with the words: “Unfit. Dangerous. Even for Republicans.”
Under the umbrella “Together for America,” the Clinton campaign is highlighting other well-known Republicans who have spoken out against Trump’s character and temperament.
The Clinton campaign is also playing up endorsements by traditional Republican newspapers that have found Trump “unfit” to be president, or, in the words of the Cincinnati Enquirer (which hasn’t endorsed a Democrat in a century), “a clear and present danger.”
Vilifying Trump and creating a broad bipartisan coalition against him are entirely justified. Trump is indeed a menace.
It’s also a winning strategy if Hillary Clinton’s only goal is to get elected president.
But a singular focus on Trump poses two big risks for what happens after she wins.
First, it reduces her presidential coattails that might otherwise help Democratic candidates now running for the Senate and House. Portraying Trump as an aberration from normal Republicanism gives their Republican opponents a free pass. All they have to do is distance themselves from him.
Six months ago, when the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were still linking Trump to the Republican Party, Democrats were well positioned to win back control of the Senate – defending just 10 seats compared with 24 for Republicans.
But the odds of a Democratic Senate takeover have shrunk.
In the key battleground state of New Hampshire, for example, 78 percent of voters now view incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte, a first-term senator who rarely mentions Trump on the campaign trail, as a “different kind of Republican” than Trump, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll of battleground states last month.
In Ohio, 20 percent of likely Clinton voters said in another recent poll that they will vote for incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman over the Democratic candidate, Ted Strickland. Strickland was leading several months ago but Portman has pulled ahead. Portman has made it clear he wants nothing to do with Trump. When Ohio hosted the Republican National Convention this summer, Portman stayed away.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Senator Pat Toomey is running neck-and-neck with former environmental official Katie McGinty. Toomey should be vulnerable, but he has refused to endorse Trump and is running as his “own man.”
In North Carolina, Democratic candidate former state lawmaker and ACLU lawyer Deborah Ross has a fighting chance to beat incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr, but Burr is focusing on state issues and is keeping his distance from Trump.
Hillary Clinton needs a Democratic Senate if she becomes president. Without one, her legislative initiatives will be dead on arrival. She may not even be able to count on enough votes to confirm her cabinet choices.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, the odds of Democrats retaking the House – never high – now seem impossible.
Moreover, in pursing Republican voters who have doubts about Trump, the Clinton campaign has gone to great lengths to avoid tainting House Speaker Paul Ryan with Trump – thereby leaving Ryan more powerful than ever if Clinton wins.
The second risk in focusing on the unique disqualifications of Trump is that it may dilute public support for what Clinton wants to accomplish as president. After all, if the central purpose of her campaign and the major motivation of her supporters is to stop Trump, she’ll already have accomplished that before she’s even sworn in.
It likewise makes it more difficult for her, as president, to push back against Republican orthodoxy with a bold vision of what America must do.
The reality is that Trump’s proposals aren’t far removed from what the Republican Party has been trying to achieve for years – cutting taxes on the rich and on corporations; gutting health, safety, and environmental regulations; repealing Obamacare; spending more on defense; blocking immigration and sending more undocumented workers packing; imposing “law and order” in black communities; and preventing an increase in the minimum wage.
Focusing on Trump’s character flaws instead of the flawed Republican agenda is appropriate – up to a point. Donald Trump is dangerous. And, yes, the first priority must be to stop him.
But that shouldn’t be the only priority.