GOP’s risky bet on its hard-core base
Scandals typically cloud a president’s agenda. But the Russia-related legal challenges swirling around President Trump are more like a protective cloak, with the GOP governing in a manner aimed almost entirely at stoking its hard-core base. That calculation could determine the party’s fate in the 2018 elections, and possibly the 2020 contest as well.
In the week since fired FBI Director James B. Comey leveled his explosive charges at the president, Capitol Hill Republicans have offered two responses. They have insisted that even if Trump did everything Comey alleged, the behavior does not warrant criminal action or impeachment. And simultaneously both chambers have advanced deeply conservative policy proposals — House Republicans voted to repeal the major financial regulations approved under thenPresident Obama, and Senate Republicans are working in private to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
These responses rest on the calculation that the GOP can best avoid losses in 2018 by mobilizing its base supporters, no matter how other voters respond to their actions. But aiming their governing decisions at such a narrow spectrum of Americans could magnify the risks facing Republicans. As Trump’s presidency careens through increasingly turbulent waters, congressional Republicans are lashing themselves ever more tightly to its mast.
That was most apparent in their collective shrug at Comey’s Senate Intelligence Committee testimony. Strikingly, no leading Republican argued that Comey was fabricating when he said Trump encouraged him to drop the FBI investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Rather, Republicans declared that even if Trump made the remarks Comey reported, his actions were at most inappropriate, and not illegal.
That unanimity contrasted sharply with the response from the mainstream legal community. Some experts defended Trump’s actions. But a wide array of former federal prosecutors, including former U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara, Watergate investigators and law professors, argued that the behavior Comey described justified an obstruction-of-justice investigation. Congressional Republicans dismissed those conclusions.
That supine acceptance follows the pattern established when Trump previously violated other norms, such as not releasing his tax returns. Every time Trump has broken a window, GOP leaders have obediently swept up the glass, if sometimes after some initial grumbling. Their deference could explain why Trump might imagine Republicans would ultimately defend him even if he fired special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, as he’s reportedly considered this week.
The decision to lock arms around Trump over Russia and Flynn reinforces the agenda congressional Republicans are pursuing. In both chambers, GOP leaders have rejected negotiations with Democrats in order to advance a program centered on repealing Obama-era actions. Trump’s executive orders have likewise emphasized undoing his predecessor’s regulations program, particularly those linked to global climate change.
Recent national polls found that almost three-fifths of Americans opposed both the Housepassed legislation to repeal the ACA and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. Each, however, drew more support than opposition from self-identified Republicans (although even about one-fourth of Republicans opposed each idea). Likewise, in another poll, about two-thirds of Republicans supported repealing financial regulations, while most Americans overall opposed the idea.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a shrewd former campaign strategist, told me the GOP believes enthusiasm for these ideas from their core supporters matters more for 2018 than the overall public resistance to them. “People know the Democratic base is extremely agitated, and you are not going to defuse it in the short term,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your own base charged up and the only way to do that is deliver” on these issues.
But GOP members in competitive House seats — starting with the nearly two dozen in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — can’t win simply by mobilizing Republicans. In defending Trump’s actions on the Flynn investigation and pursuing such a polarizing agenda, they risk unnerving voters uneasy about both. With Trump lurching from crisis to crisis, Republican-leaning voters, especially in white-collar suburbs, may conclude they need a Democratic Congress to exert more oversight on a volatile president.
Whatever strategy Republicans pursue, Trump will loom large in 2018. In the last three midterm elections, exit polls found that 82% to 84% of voters who disapproved of the incumbent president’s performance voted against his party’s House candidates. Between 84% and 87% of those who approved of the president’s performance voted for his party. But in each case, because the president’s approval rating fell well below 50% at the time of each contest, his party suffered big losses.
Fewer competitive seats today will make it tough for Democrats to achieve gains of that magnitude. But the most recent Quinnipiac University national poll showed public attitudes intensifying the midterm trend: Nearly 9 in 10 voters who disapprove of Trump said they preferred that Democrats control the House; more than 9 in 10 voters who approve of him want Republicans in charge. The GOP’s problem is that Trump’s disapproval rating touched 60% in Gallup polling this week, while his approval rating remains stuck below 40%. In virtually everything they are doing, Republicans are speaking almost exclusively to that smaller group — and widening their distance from the larger one.