Julian Zelizer: Clinton's ability to deliver power message might tilt Congress to Democrats
She has chance to frame debate in a way that makes it clear what's at stake, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Hillary Clinton is feeling pretty good about the election. Almost all of the polls have moved decisively in her favor, the debates were a “disaster” for Donald Trump, and the GOP might be seriously at risk of losing control of the Senate and, just possibly, the House.
During the third debate, Clinton once again demonstrated just how masterful she could be at the art of political combat, goading Trump into sharing his most provocative thoughts and mocking some of his most outlandish statements. There were moments when he seemed to be barely holding on as she went after his policies and personality.
Clinton has also released a series of blistering ads that demolish Trump’s temperament, policies and character. One recent ad compares Trump to all the famous Hollywood film bullies who have tormented their classmates. The ad concludes with a young girl asking Clinton what she would do about bullying as she explained how kids talked behind her back about her asthma. “That was really brave,” Clinton says.
At other moments Clinton has gone silent. During key parts of the debates and even on the campaign trail, she has stepped back, most likely just to let Trump be Trump. When your opponent’s campaign is imploding, some experts believe, the best thing to do is watch.
Yet there is a danger for Clinton and the Democrats if she sits out too much of the next two weeks and only focuses on landing the knockout blow that would make Trump unviable as a candidate. Not only does Clinton continue to suffer from low favorability ratings and distrust among Democrats, but her campaign has been overshadowed by the ongoing bluster and controversy of Trump. There has not been much political space for her to make a case to the American public about what she would do as president. Even in the final debate, where policy issues finally received some attention, the discussion was lost to Trump’s remarkable claim that he would not necessarily accept the outcome of the election.
Why does it matter that Clinton spends more time in the next two weeks articulating her agenda and campaigning around the kind of president that she aspires to be in the next four years? Why change course if the current strategy seems to be succeeding so well?
The main reason for Clinton to define her agenda more aggressively is that if she wins she will have an extraordinarily narrow window of time during which to govern. Even Lyndon Johnson, in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and with the wind of the civil rights movement behind him, only had a two-year window through which to pass most of his Great Society legislation. Following the midterm elections of 1966, the wizard of American politics was not able to get much done on the domestic front.
If Democrats regain control of the Congress, it might very well only last for two years. During that time, Republicans will use all the power of minority obstruction to block her initiatives. If Republicans keep control of Congress, they will have little interest in handing her any victory. Many experts expect that House Speaker Paul Ryan would face a narrower majority – which makes every vote count – and an expanded Freedom Caucus.
Given those circumstances, it will be essential that Clinton is in the best position possible to take advantage of whatever opportunities emerge. The more that she can do to refine and sell an overall political vision going into the elections, the better positioned she will be at the start of a potential presidency. Given how little many Americans know about what she stands for, as opposed to her extensive experience and the flaws of her opponent, using this time on the national stage well will be essential.
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If Clinton wants to make sure that the Obama coalition comes out to vote in large numbers, which would help to create the perception of a “mandate” in December and January, that coalition needs to know more about who they are supporting. It is not enough to not be Trump. The most energetic coalitions come forth, as was the case in 2008, when they have someone to believe in and a set of ideas for which to fight. This will also be important to counteract some of the skepticism that might emerge from any yet to be released WikiLeaks material.
Clinton’s ability to deliver a power message in the next few weeks might also help to push the scales toward a Democratic Senate and even a Democratic House. Right now, by most accounts, control of Congress could go either way, though Trump’s performance in the last few weeks has opened the door to the possibility of a Democratic takeover. This is a moment where Clinton has an opportunity to help frame the debate in a way that makes clear to Democrats what’s at stake in the election of a Democratic Congress, which would be essential to allow her to achieve her agenda. Right now, many of her supporters are not even sure what that agenda will be. Given the dynamics of the polls, there is actually the real possibility of an election that results in united government and creates the impression of a mandate for change.
There was a moment in the third debate that revealed the potential for Clinton to make this kind of case. She strongly defended the right of women to control their own bodies and decisions about abortion, and she condemned sexual assault and harassment as intolerable. Clinton, who is doing extremely well against Trump with female voters, revealed at that moment one of the most potent issues that she can use to frame her presidency. “For women, politics gets complicated when people try to place ownership on what a woman can and can’t do with her body,” said one undergraduate speaking to The New York Times, “It does reassure me to have a woman in office who understands what it’s like to be a woman.”
Clinton does not want to end a successful campaign feeling like Bill McKay, the candidate played by Robert Redford in the 1972 film “The Candidate,” who is urged by a political campaign professional named Marvin Lucas to run against an incumbent senator. The idealistic McKay runs an effective campaign and wins.
In one of the most famous scenes, McKay and Lucas duck into a room as a horde of journalists try to get inside. As the journalists pry open the door and flood in to interview the victor, McKay asks: “What do we do now?” Lucas can’t hear him, and he never gets an answer.
Given the enormous stakes in this election and difficult governing environment that exists for both parties, Clinton can’t afford to go into November without knowing her answer and with an electoral coalition that is not much more sure themselves.