Hillary Rodham Clinton is already running her presidential campaign — against the Republican Congress. And the GOP is only happy to oblige.
The prospective 2016 Democratic candidate is seeking to use the priorities and record of congressional Republicans as a foil, highlighting early GOP stumbles and attempting to change the subject after weeks of rough media coverage of her private e-mail system and of foreign donations to her family’s foundation.
In blasts of rapid-fire Twitter messages just this week, Clinton accused Republicans of waging a war on women, playing politics with a black nominee, shortchanging students, endangering the economic recovery and trying to yank health-care coverage for 16 million Americans.
The invocation of divisive issues such as abortion, race and health care was less than subtle. She also weighed in last week on a controversial open letter to Iranian leaders from 47 Senate Republicans — including several presidential hopefuls — in opposition to the Obama administration’s negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.
“No one considering running for commander-in-chief should be signing on,” she wrote on Twitter.
Never mind that Clinton is not yet an announced candidate and currently holds no public office. With a huge lead over potential Democratic challengers, Clinton is attacking Republicans as though she were already her party’s nominee.
Congressional Republicans, playing to their right flank, have forged ahead with inquiries into Clinton’s e-mail scandal while reviving investigations into the deaths of four Americans in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state. The House GOP also announced a budget outline this week that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and make large cuts in domestic programs — giving Clinton a chance to begin testing Democratic themes for a presidential run.
“They can’t help themselves,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). “They’re forever doing this kind of stuff: Benghazi, the letter to the Iranians, no matter what it is, they seem hellbent on overkill. It’s helping her so far.”
Many Republicans disagree, arguing that they are obligated to seek answers to lingering questions over Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) said that many voters are troubled by Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while in office.
“When I talk to people, they are offended with the conduct and it feels like it’s another ‘there they go again’ moment with the Clintons,” Blackburn said. “They know the rules, but they have chosen to not play by the rules.”
And Rory Cooper, a GOP consultant and former top adviser to former House majority leader Eric Cantor (Va.), said the attacks won’t work for Clinton once Republicans have a candidate.
“She may want to run against Congress, but the party’s nominee ends up taking the main role in setting the conservative agenda and the tone of the debate,” Cooper said. “Congress will have a role to play in 2016, but it’s the nominee who leads.”
The week since Clinton reluctantly held a news conference defending her unorthodox e-mail arrangements has often felt like a revival of the epic feuds between Republicans and Clinton’s husband in the 1990s: mounting investigations, conservative fury and bursts of indignation from the Clinton camp.
Even the parts seem similar: a GOP House speaker facing pressure from his right, a defiant Hillary Clinton, and longtime Clinton family defender James Carville playing the role of James Carville.
Clinton is focusing her fire on congressional Republicans, who have a generally lower approval rating, rather than individual GOP presidential hopefuls. Clinton’s broad-brush assault is intended to tie all Republicans to what Democrats think are the unpopular policies and unappealing overreach of congressional leaders.
“Our nation’s future — jobs & economic growth — depends on investments made today. The GOP budget fails Americans on these principles,” Clinton tweeted Tuesday night.
Clinton’s sharply partisan tone echoes arguments made by super PAC Emily’s List and Clinton surrogates. Clinton’s chosen topics and targets also provide a window on her preparation for a campaign likely to focus on which candidate can best connect with the middle class and the economically disenfranchised.
Clinton will stress her long record fighting on behalf of women, for example, and is sure to expand on her claim this week of a congressional Republican “trifecta against women.” She is expected to enter the race next month.
Several Democrats supporting Clinton were buoyed by new poll numbers Wednesday that suggest the e-mail controversy did no serious damage. Clinton leads every potential Republican challenger by at least 11 points in the CNN/ORC poll, and she leads Vice President Biden by 47 points and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by 52 points in hypothetical matchups.
Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) said that Democrats were better off with Clinton as their 2016 nominee, while just 30 percent said they’d be better with someone else.
Like his 1990s predecessor Newt Gingrich, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) faces near-constant calls from his right flank to put the Clintons at the forefront of House oversight efforts.
Last year, Boehner spent months mulling whether to have a select committee on Benghazi and was wary about doing so. He wanted to emphasize economic issues ahead of the midterm elections, according to a Boehner confidant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his conversations with the speaker. Ultimately, though, Boehner relented and approved the investigation.
“It did take pressure,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a Boehner critic, said at a Tuesday luncheon of conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Thank goodness we had enough pressure for that committee to be appointed. There was pushback for what, two years, before he did finally appoint the committee, and it looks like a better and better decision every day.”
The committee is a main player in the drama over Clinton’s e-mails; Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the committee chair, is expected to call Clinton as a witness.
“Four Americans were killed,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a conservative hard-liner in the House, said when asked about whether the GOP risks overplaying its hand in inquiries of Clinton.
“I don’t think tone is a question here,” added Jordan, a member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. “Mr. Gowdy has an appropriate tone. I think it’s common sense, logical.”
Gingrich agrees. “We are witnessing a classic Clinton counterattack,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Going after those so-called nasty Republicans may work for a week, but eventually she’ll have to answer more questions.”
The latest weekly Republican address, delivered by Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), reinforced the House GOP’s approach. “It’s unjust and simply wrong for anyone to withhold evidence,” Brooks said, speaking directly to the camera. “We need to know why the security at our embassy was not adequate.”
But Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) — a Long Island moderate who opposed former president Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 — said that House Republicans should be careful as they proceed and “not overdo it.”
“We shouldn’t be salivating or piling on, even as we ask legitimate questions,” King said. “In grudging admiration, you have to know that no one is better at making themselves victims than President and Secretary Clinton. I know them, I consider them friends, but having said that, they are also masters at political jujitsu.”