The 1990s are having a moment, so let's take a Wayback Wednesday trip to 20 years ago, when congressional Republicans essentially campaigned as if it was a foregone conclusion their presidential nominee Bob Dole was going to lose to President Bill Clinton. Dole's potential loss, they hoped, was their own electoral gain -- or at least their stop-loss: "Let’s not give Clinton a blank check," they said. In recent days we've seen vulnerable Senate Republicans use the same message (in reference to a different Clinton.)
Some '90s holdovers have aged well. Others...not so much. Which category does the "blank check" strategy fall into? I caught up with Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager in '96, for his quick take via email. His answers were lightly copy-edited.
THE FIX: Say I’m a Martian and just landed on Earth and started reading The Washington Post to learn more about the 2016 election. What, in your opinion, are some of the parallels from the ’96 election to today that I should know about?
REED: Time to clear up a little revisionist history here. Dole was running in ’96 against an incumbent with a 4.5 percent growing economy and world peace. Clinton is now running for Obama’s third term.
THE FIX: Were you surprised when House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) used the term “blank check” in a fundraising email to supporters in August? (Exact language: “If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check.”)
REED: Blank check sounds like a green-eye-shade accountant term. Checks and balances is a lot more powerful.
Congressional Republicans would be smart to wait for the presidential debates to conclude to play such a card.
THE FIX: Why?
REED: The 20 percent undecided and [possibly] voting third party will be making their final decision after the first few debates. And then voters will start to make final decisions on their local races. Time and sequence still counts in politics.
After the third debate in '96, we all knew we were going to come up short on Election Day.
THE FIX: I’ve since talked to Republican operatives who said the big difference between then and now is that Dole knew it had to be done and accepted it. Trump, by contrast, won’t. Your thoughts?
REED: Our closing move, dubbed the 96-hour fly around, focused on turnout in targeted House and Senate races. It was 96 hours non-stop, I believe, 13,000 miles and 30 plus stops.
Only Bob Dole, as a former [Republican National Committee] chairman, understood the need to close out strong.
It created a lot of momentum and both [then-House Speaker] Newt Gingrich and [then-Senate No. 2] Trent Lott told me on election night it saved the GOP Congress. GOP picked up two Senate seats.