Some conservative Republicans disgusted by Donald Trump’s offensive, scorched-earth campaign have long suspected their party’s nominee to be secretly in league with his erstwhile friends Bill and Hillary Clinton. They wonder whether Bill Clinton and Trump worked out an agreement — perhaps during the course of that “casual” phone call between the two last May — designed to hand Hillary Clinton the White House while tarnishing the GOP’s brand for a generation.
It’s been dismissed by many as a conspiracy theory. But as Trump continues to offend with racially charged rhetoric and his own outlandish theories, a top Democratic lawmaker is now airing it openly.
“There are some theories on the Internet that this is Bill Clinton’s best political deal,” says Marcy Kaptur, the veteran Democratic congresswoman from Ohio and the House’s longest-serving female lawmaker, “that he and Donald are buddies, and they have a lot of similar friends in New York, and he has masterfully selected a friend who maybe by October will say, ‘You know, this is very boring. And I’m going to get out.’”
“Do I believe it 100 percent, do I believe it 2 percent? You know, you really wonder,” Kaptur says.
Suggesting that your party’s nominee might’ve made a backroom deal with the devil isn’t part of the normal course of business for a run-of-the-mill Democratic lawmaker. But Kaptur has tussled with the Clintons before.
She vehemently opposed NAFTA and other free-trade deals during Bill Clinton’s first term, and considered joining Ross Perot as his running mate in the 1996 presidential election. She bucked the Democratic establishment again in 2016, becoming one of just eleven congressional superdelegates backing Bernie Sanders and sticking by him even as Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination. And even as Sanders now says he’s looking forward to working with Clinton, Kaptur won’t say when — or if — she’ll jump on the Clinton-campaign bandwagon. “I’m waiting to hear from [Sanders],” she says, noting that Clinton’s victory in the Ohio primary was marred by low voter turnout and that she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to support her.
Now Kaptur’s looking ahead to November in her home state, which is the linchpin of both parties’ presidential plans. Ohio’s 18 electoral votes are a must-win – particularly for the GOP, given Trump’s relative strength among voters in the Rust Belt and his weakness with white-collar Republican voters. In a wide-ranging interview with National Review, Kaptur discusses the prospects of Clinton and Trump in the state, how the Democratic party can knit itself back together after a bruising primary, and why she hopes the debate over free trade won’t be buried beneath Trump’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric.
Kaptur’s district encompasses a wide swath of urban coastline along the shore of Lake Erie, from Toledo to Cleveland. It’s one of the rustiest parts of the Rust Belt, a tableau of shuttered steel factories and dilapidated union halls. Though the district typically votes Democratic, this cycle’s topsy-turvy politics has placed Trump at the head of a protectionist movement favored by the area’s white, blue-collar workers. Those voters supported Sanders in larger-than-expected numbers throughout the industrial Midwest and coal country. And Trump is now openly angling for their support, hitting Clinton for her prior praise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and painting her as bad on trade.
Despite their shared antipathy toward free trade, Kaptur is no friend of Trump.
Despite their shared antipathy toward free trade, Kaptur is no friend of Trump. But she still welcomes the spotlight he and Sanders have shined on the issue. “When steel gets dumped on the international markets, it’s workers in Ohio who get laid off,” she says. “It’s very different in Washington, D.C., where the majority of jobs are government jobs. I don’t come from that kind of America.”
That’s why the congresswoman is increasingly dismayed by Trump’s descent into the politics of racial grievance. She worries that the increasing focus on his offensive remarks means that the issues surrounding trade and the economy will get lost in a battle over social issues. “Economics has been the major issue in Ohio for a very long time — jobs and the economy,” Kaptur says, pointing to the sharp decline of manufacturing in the Rust Belt and to the virtual collapse of the coal industry in southern Ohio. “What’s happened because of Donald Trump’s irreverence and not having any public experience at all, he’s moving the needle to social issues, and to rights issues, I think — equal rights, respect for different ethnic groups, different racial groups.”
Kaptur admits that’s probably good news for Clinton — as a slew of recent polls following his attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the “Mexican” federal judge, has made clear. “This makes it easier for her,” Kaptur says, “because he’s shifting her to the social-rights platform, and she will excel and he will not.” But that shift, if it continues, will also represent a missed opportunity for the Democratic party’s progressive wing to make a real stand on trade and the economy.
Sanders, of course, championed those bread-and-butter issues during his campaign. And despite his defeat in the Democratic primaries, Kaptur isn’t quite ready for him to throw in the towel. “I think we have to give it a little more time, the senator has to work with his team — including superdelegates like myself — to develop a constructive strategy,” she says. “He has many goals. He wants to make the Democratic party more inclusive, bring in the younger generation. I support him in that.” Kaptur also supports Sanders’s efforts to reform the DNC, though she stops short of calling for Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation owing to what some Sanders supporters perceive as Schultz’s pro-Clinton bias.
Still, the congresswoman is confident Clinton will strike a deal with Sanders and some of his blue-collar supporters. “She’s a very intelligent person, and she’s absorbing all of this and working on winning in places like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania—– maybe even Indiana,” says Kaptur. “I think we have to give [Clinton and Sanders] a chance to work things out a little bit, and be respectful of that.”
With a relative peace descending onto the Democratic party, Kaptur believes Ohio’s struggling workers will reject Trump at the ballot box this fall. She points to John Kasich’s overwhelming primary victory last spring, along with the state’s selection of such moderate Republican governors as Kasich and Bob Taft, as proof that there’s little room for Trump’s brand of GOP politics there. “We like some flair, right? But we don’t like the crudity, the vulgarity of the Trump campaign,” she says. “That is really not Ohio.”
But Kaptur cautions Clinton to resist the temptation to run solely in opposition to Trump’s social and racial rhetoric. “Because of what’s happening in coal country, because of what’s happening with the industrial base in Ohio, that would be a very dangerous strategy,” the congresswoman says. “The steel mills are laying off. We haven’t had the kind of robust job creation, or the income growth, that people expect. It’s tough. I don’t think you get out of Ohio without dealing with the economy.”
– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.