The last time an inarticulate, septuagenarian Republican candidate fared poorly in debates while running against a member of the Clinton family was 1996. That year Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton. Dole is not Donald Trump, but Republicans reacted to Dole’s likely loss in October with a cold, unemotional strategy. It was best articulated by Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee: “If Clinton is elected, heaven forbid, the last thing the American people want is for him to have a blank check in the form of a liberal Democrat Congress.”
Republicans didn’t abandon Dole, but they pivoted away from promoting him to trying instead to preserve their majorities in Congress. They urged voters to split their tickets and leave in place a watchdog on a slippery, unseemly Clinton White House. It worked. Dole lost by eight points, but GOP Senate candidates ran ahead of him in every contested state but Dole’s native Kansas. Republicans kept control of Congress.
The 1996 Republican decision to tell vulnerable Republicans they were free to disconnect their campaigns from the top of the ticket was made just after the final debate that year, on October 16. It was prompted by internal polls that suggested that as much as 10 percent of the electorate might abandon its Democratic Senate or House candidate when confronted with the risk of giving the Democrats undivided control in Washington.
But the strategy was rolled out quietly and slowly, to avoid panic and alienating strong Dole supporters. Eddie Mahe, a GOP consultant at the time, recalls that “base voters weren’t told directly it didn’t look good for president, but there were lots of subliminal messages for independent voters.” Mahe believes that the tactics helped some GOP candidates pick up between two and four points, in many cases saving their races.
Another piece of the 1996 GOP strategy was a flyer issued by the Republican National Committee in those days before e-mail became ubiquitous. It warned about the threat to the nation if Democrats took over Congress. “’What would a Democrat Congress look like?” it asked, and answered, “Look left.” There the flyer featured pictures of Democratic leaders and potential committee chairmen, including the late Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Charles Rangel of New York. Today, a similar “roster of radicals” would feature Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But Republicans didn’t just go on defense. The 1996 election featured a growing scandal engulfing the Clinton campaign. Starting in early October, Bill Clinton began trying to run out the clock on a growing campaign-finance scandal. It involved a former Commerce Department official, John Huang, who after leaving government became a top fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, scooping up suspect foreign cash for Team Clinton. Throughout October 1996, Huang dodged subpoenas and reporters. The dimensions of the scandal became clear only after the election, when reporters uncovered ties between Huang associates and the Communist regime in Beijing.
There is a parallel in this year’s election. Hillary Clinton is trying to run out the clock on WikiLeaks revelations about the Clinton Foundation, her private e-mail server, and Benghazi.
The sprawling fundraising scandal ultimately led to 22 guilty pleas on various violations of election laws. Among the Clinton fundraisers and friends who pleaded guilty were Huang and Michael Brown, son of the late Clinton commerce secretary Ron Brown. But a lot was never learned, even after the revelations that Clinton had personally authorized the practice of offering donors Oval Office meetings and use of the Lincoln Bedroom. A total of 120 participants in the fundraising scandal either fled the country, asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, or otherwise avoided questioning.
There is a parallel in this year’s election. Hillary Clinton is now trying to run out the clock on WikiLeaks’s revelations about the Clinton Foundation, her private e-mail server, and Benghazi. Videos by James O’Keefe of Project Veritas have captured top Democratic operatives planning violent disruptions of Trump rallies as well as scheming to commit voter fraud. Should Clinton become president, many voters will want the House or the Senate to use its oversight and investigative powers to probe just how Team Clinton bent the arc of ethics to achieve victory.
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she will be the legitimate occupant of the Oval Office. But that doesn’t mean that someone with her track record of evasion and deception shouldn’t be held accountable.
After all, Hillary’s campaign this year has been filled with calls for accountability. When she ran against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, she quipped that “no executive is too powerful to jail.” In discussing the need for more oversight of police treatment of minorities, she proclaimed last July that “we have to change. Many police officers across the country agree with that, but it can only happen if we build trust and accountability.”
Last month, an Associated Press poll found that 53 percent of voters don’t think Clinton is honest at all. Nearly half, 49 percent, think she is at least somewhat corrupt. Given those numbers, it shouldn’t be too hard to make a case to independent and even some Democratic voters that handing Hillary Clinton “blank check” control of Congress would be imprudent and even reckless.