GOP’s risky bet on its hard-core base

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - RON­ALD BROWN­STEIN Ron­ald Brown­stein isa se­nior ed­i­tor at the At­lantic. rbrown­stein@na­tional jour­nal.com

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.

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