AGAINST THE GRAIN

How Clinton Could Score With GOP Moderates

Her biggest choice in the general election is whether she continues to pander to the Left, or decides to build a sizable bipartisan coalition against Donald Trump.

Sen. Tim Kaine (right), with Rep. Adam Schiff
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 15, 2016, 8 p.m.

Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  That sums up both the opportunity and dilemma Hillary Clinton faces as she prepares a general election campaign against Donald Trump.

On paper, Clinton is in an enviable position, running against an opponent with the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate in the history of polling. That advantage provides her with a dizzying array of choices for how to run her own race.

She could use the opportunity to build bridges with moderate anti-Trump Republicans in hopes of running up the score in November and claiming valuable political capital as president. A convincing win of at least 7 points would likely give her a healthy Senate majority, an outside possibility at winning the House, and the ability to get things done once elected. Such a strategy would take a page out of her husband’s triangulating playbook, and could potentially soften her persistent negatives with the upscale faction of Republicans deeply dissatisfied with Trump.

For the “No Labels” crowd perennially dreaming of a technocratic Bloomberg presidency, Clinton is an ideal candidate to actually achieve those aims—under the unique circumstances of this election. She could win without being beholden to her party’s base, and have the opportunity to capitalize on deep divisions within the Republican Party. But there’s a risk in running to the middle: If she’s elected while ignoring the demands of an emboldened Left, she could face her own intraparty insurgency once in office.

The other option: She could satisfy a restless progressive base—convinced the general election is hers to lose—and continue to make policy concessions to disgruntled Bernie Sanders voters. Such a move would help unite a party that’s been drifting leftward. Moderates in both parties wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, given that Trump is their only other choice.  

But such a strategy would only fuel the country’s political polarization, and make it more difficult to get anything done. If most Republican voters rally around Trump—as new polls suggest they’re doing—the election won’t be a landslide. Clinton would still be the favorite, but her own weak approval ratings wouldn’t bring enough down-ballot Democrats with her to govern effectively. She’d face a wall of Republican resistance in office.

So far, the Clinton campaign is doing what the Clintons do well—sending different messages to different audiences. In a Democratic primary, she’s predictably advocated an activist federal government—increasing funding for early-childhood education, using executive actions to regulate firearms, and offering a safe haven for illegal immigrants. But more recently, she’s also outlined a more muscular foreign policy vision than President Obama, and her supporters have been courting several major GOP fundraisers to gauge their interest in defecting to the Democratic side.

Clinton’s selection of a running mate will go a long way in demonstrating which path she will take. Liberal activists are pining for her to choose Sen. Elizabeth Warren to unify the party’s progressive wing alongside its more pragmatic nominee. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, a Hispanic civil-rights attorney, has generated some surprising buzz among true-blue believers. A more conventional choice to satisfy the party’s left flank would be Sen. Sherrod Brown, a populist with solid approval ratings in the pivotal swing state of Ohio.

Picking a progressive running mate would give activists a clear sign that she’s committed to their causes. But appeasing the Left while running against Trump would be a clear sign of weakness, an acknowledgement that Sanders supporters still aren’t enthusiastic about her, and the choice would bring little political benefit in the general election.

In any case, the two women don’t have much personal chemistry with each other, and Warren would make it more difficult to win over moderates. Perez has no elected experience, beyond service on the Montgomery County, Maryland council. Brown would be the most realistic choice, but if tapped, he’d be vacating his Senate seat to a Republican that Gov. John Kasich would appoint.

If Clinton wanted to score points in the middle, she has obvious options. Sen. Tim Kaine would balance the ticket as a bridge-building moderate representing Virginia, an important battleground state. If she wanted an all-female ticket, red-state senators Claire McCaskill (Missouri) or Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) would offer ideological balance. And if she wanted to really demonstrate a willingness to work with Republicans, she could reach out to one of the few committed anti-Trump Republicans to join her on the ticket—such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

That’s where Clinton’s opportunity lies. If she can make herself acceptable to an upscale, anti-Trump segment of the Republican Party, she has the potential to run up the score in November. But if she caters to the base, expect another four years of gridlock in Washington.

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