On Sunday night, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) shared one of the worst kept secrets of the Democrats: Hillary Clinton is a drag on the party. In a television interview, the embattled senator unloaded on the former first lady for dissing Donald Trump’s base and dumping on America’s hinterlands. As McCaskill said, “For those of us that are in states that Trump won, we would really appreciate if she would be more careful and show respect to every American voter and not just the ones who voted for her.” Ouch.
McCaskill is guilty of nothing but telling the truth. So long as Clinton continues to publicly nurse her grievances over the 2016 election, the Democratic Party’s task of recapturing the House and Senate is made that much more difficult. It is one thing to finesse a message that can appeal to high-end suburban moms without offending white working-class voters. It is a whole other thing to do so under the shroud of Clinton’s audible shadow.
Even before McCaskill had rebuked Clinton, the Republicans had seized on her gaffes with an online ad that highlighted Clinton’s jaundiced take of Middle America and her ties to McCaskill. Sen. Brown (D-Ohio) took a similarly dim view of Clinton’s readout of the heartland, saying, “I don’t really care what she said. I just think that that’s not helpful.”
Things don’t look grim for the Democrats. Our priapic president’s past pursuits coupled with the youth-led gun control debate have helped the Democrats look poised to recapture control of the House. These days, the White House looks dysfunctional, the Republican Party appears out of touch, and high-end suburban households are just plain mad. According to a national poll released Tuesday, Americans like the high school gun protesters more than they approve of the NRA, with the gun-rights group underwater by 10 points among women.
All that is big news. Of the 24 seats the Democrats need to reclaim the House, 25 of them are in districts that Clinton won, and the bulk of competitive races involve Republican incumbents. At least another 16 seats held by Republicans also appear at risk, and even the Senate may be within grasp. When radio shock Howard Stern gives Trump a crude on-air thumbs down, it is fair to say that Trump’s brand is taking a hit among one segment of his base.
All that sounds promising for the Democrats, but it is not the whole story. Competing in a swing district is not the same thing as running in a safe district but with more money and a louder megaphone. Rather, it’s about speaking to populations with varied concerns. As Conor Lamb demonstrated in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, nuance matters. Not every district is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or Chicago’s North Shore suburbs.
Right now, Democratic incumbents in states that went for Trump appear to be holding on. The latest polls show potential Democratic Senate pickups in Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada, with McCaskill engaged in a seesaw reelection battle, and Brown sitting on a double-digit lead.
Still, the temptation for national Democrats and party activists is to demand conformity and parrot Clinton’s critiques of half the country, regardless of damage and outcome. Bottom line, don’t do it. Winning is far more satisfying than prematurely gloating. As Democrat Tom Murphy, the mayor of Mamaroneck, a middle-class New York suburb, framed things, the party can’t expect that “every district is left-leaning Berkeley.”
While Clinton’s frustrations are understandable, she should get off the stage, along with her dismal poll numbers. Back in December, Gallup pegged her favorability at 36 percent, with more than three in five Americans voicing disapproval. The chaos surrounding Trump and the special counsel have not salvaged Clinton’s standing. Indeed, her favorability ratings have actually dropped since last summer.
From looks of things, duking it out with Trump is better left to Joe Biden. For the Democrats, a vanishing Clinton allows them to break with the turbulence that marked the Clinton years, their aftermath, and Trump’s win. The question is whether Clinton will give the Democrats the breathing room they need. If past is prelude, don’t bet on it.
Lloyd Green was the opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and later served in the U.S. Department of Justice.