House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) sent an urgent fundraising appeal Thursday evening that warned: “If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check.”
Whether or not it was intentional, the phrase “blank check” has a political echo — one that suggests a deep fear by congressional Republicans that a sinking presidential candidate could take their majorities in the House and Senate with him, and that they are getting ready to desert him.
It goes back 20 years, to an infamous chapter in internecine Republican politics. In the weeks before the 1996 presidential election, as it became clearer and clearer that GOP nominee Bob Dole would not defeat incumbent president Bill Clinton, Republican operatives began urging their struggling congressional candidates to begin making the argument: “Let’s not give Clinton a blank check.”
In late October of that year, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $4 million on television ads in 50 congressional districts where races were close. The final shot was of a blank check hovering over the Capitol dome. It was signed: “American taxpayer.”
One of Dole’s top strategists that year was Paul Manafort, who is now Trump’s campaign chairman. Dole’s personal assistant was Michael Glassner, who has worked for Trump’s campaign for more than a year. A number of other Dole staffers now work for Trump.