Trump’s fo­cus on base puts him on risky path for 2019

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - News - BY ROBERT COSTA AND MICHAEL SCHERER

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s head­strong re­fusal to re­open the fed­eral gov­ern­ment without new bor­der wall fund­ing has set him on a risky and de­fi­ant path for 2019, re­ly­ing on brazen brinkman­ship to shore up his base sup­port and pro­tect him ahead of a chal­leng­ing year for his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The lat­est over­tures in the wake of the midterm elec­tions, which brought about sweep­ing Demo­cratic gains and the end of GOP con­trol of Congress, stand in stark con­trast to the his­tor­i­cal be­hav­ior of mod­ern pres­i­dents, who have moved at least briefly to­ward the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter af­ter be­ing hum­bled at the bal­lot box.

But Trump – coun­seled by a cadre of hard-line law­mak­ers and sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism from his al­lies in the con­ser­va­tive me­dia – has in­stead fo­cused on re­as­sur­ing his most ar­dent sup­port­ers of his com­mit­ment to the sig­na­ture bor­der pledge that elec­tri­fied his fol­low­ers dur­ing his 2016 pres­i­den­tial run even though it is op­posed by a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers.

The pres­i­dent has re­jected the ad­vice of Repub­li­can poll­sters and strate­gists to de­clare that he holds a win­ning hand, pre­dict­ing in a se­ries of tweets that even los­ing the clash over bor­der con­struc­tion will lead him to re­elec­tion, all while threat­en­ing to “close” the bor­der if Democrats do not blink on his $5 bil­lion re­quest for a new wall.

“This is only about the Dems not let­ting Don­ald Trump & the Repub­li­cans have a win,” Trump tweeted on Thurs­day. “They may have the 10 Se­nate votes, but we have the is­sue, Bor­der Se­cu­rity. 2020!”

Trump’s fer­vent ap­peals to his sup­port­ers – not just on the wall but in his sharp­en­ing crit­i­cism of Fed­eral Re­serve Chair­man Jerome Pow­ell, spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III and Democrats – leave him both em­bold­ened and ham­strung head­ing into the new year, ac­cord­ing to top Repub­li­cans and Democrats. While he is gal­va­niz­ing his base amid po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic un­cer­tainty, he is also mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to work with Democrats or re­cast his own pres­i­dency.

His cur­rent stance on the gov­ern­ment shut­down re­in­forces a cen­tral tenet of Trump’s ca­reer: Choos­ing base pol­i­tics over a broader pitch and ap­ply­ing a one-di­men­sional pug­nac­ity to what­ever ob­sta­cle looms, of­ten re­plete with bursts of mis­lead­ing or in­ac­cu­rate state­ments.

Repub­li­can crit­ics, such as vet­eran strate­gist Mike Mur­phy, say Trump is threat­en­ing the GOP by “learn­ing noth­ing from Novem­ber and play­ing to the third of the coun­try that he al­ready has.”

“He’s trapped,” Mur­phy said. “He’s play­ing poker hold­ing two threes and sud­denly putting all of his chips in. It’s pure emo­tion, the mark of a pan­ick­ing am­a­teur.”

Democrats see a pres­i­dent stag­ger­ing for­ward, un­ready for the siege com­ing in the new year from em­pow­ered House Democrats and de­vel­op­ments in the spe­cial coun­sel probe of Rus­sia’s role in the 2016 elec­tion – and flail­ing as the fi­nan­cial mar­kets en­dure a roller-coaster of highs and lows.

Democrats have also pointed to an­other re­cent on­line poll by Morn­ing Con­sult show­ing a 6-point de­crease in Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing since mid-Novem­ber as ev­i­dence that their po­si­tion re­mains strong even as the ef­fects of the shut­down be­come more se­vere.

“I don’t think you can get elected pres­i­dent of the United States with 39 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion sup­port­ing you,” Drew Ham­mill, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, DCalif., said. “Talk­ing only to your base while alien­at­ing the rest of the en­tire coun­try is not a recipe for suc­cess.”

As the shut­down con­tin­ues to drag on, Trump’s dogged base pol­i­tics have left him lit­tle lev­er­age to force Democrats to com­ply with his wishes, an omi­nous real­ity as Pelosi is ex­pected to win the House speak­er­ship in the com­ing days and then mostly ig­nore Trump’s calls for wall funds as she as­serts her­self within the con­fines of di­vided gov­ern­ment.

Pelosi, in a re­cent in­ter­view with USA To­day, mocked Trump’s ul­ti­ma­tum as the bat­tle cry of a weak­ened ex­ec­u­tive search­ing for a leg­isla­tive fig leaf: “Now he’s down to, I think, a beaded cur­tain or some­thing, I’m not sure where he is.”

Some Repub­li­can poll­sters have also been watch­ing the pres­i­dent’s tac­tics with con­cern, not­ing there is lit­tle ev­i­dence he has ex­panded his elec­toral coali­tion af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, when he won the White House de­spite los­ing the pop­u­lar vote.

“The prob­lem is that the base is nowhere close to a ma­jor­ity of the na­tion,” GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres said. “In a gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple, for the peo­ple and by the peo­ple, it sure helps to have a ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple be­hind what you are try­ing to do.”

White House of­fi­cials and Trump friends say the pres­i­dent is un­bound from con­ven­tion and party, ar­gu­ing he is go­ing with his gut in­stincts and shrug­ging off calls for a more tra­di­tional ap­proach, in­clud­ing his de­ci­sion to end the U.S. op­er­a­tion in Syria, where roughly 2,000 troops are de­ployed. That pol­icy shift prompted De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis to re­sign in protest, rat­tling se­nior Repub­li­cans who have long viewed Mat­tis as a sta­bi­liz­ing force who guarded against the pres­i­dent’s im­pulses.

“It’s a preview of things to come,” for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia se­na­tor Rick San­to­rum, a Repub­li­can, said of Trump’s re­cent moves. “He feels like he lis­tened to too many peo­ple who told him he’d get the wall next year and he didn’t get it. So now he’ll fight for some­thing he be­lieves in.”

In the days be­fore Christ­mas, when sev­eral op­tions to end the shut- down were floated, Trump dis­missed them and told sev­eral ad­vis­ers that the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit with his base for “fight­ing and fight­ing” for the wall out­weighed any po­lit­i­cal cost and was a ne­ces­sity for keep­ing “my peo­ple” en­gaged, ac­cord­ing to two Trump ad­vis­ers fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions.

Trump’s tac­tics stand apart from re­cent presi- dents who have en­dured midterm losses. Barack Obama in 2010, Ge­orge W. Bush in 2006 and Bill Clin­ton in 1994 all ex­pressed some self-aware­ness of vot­ers’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion af­ter watch­ing their party lose con­trol of the House. They sub­se­quently spent time reach­ing out to the other side about bi­par­ti­san ef­forts, with vary­ing records of suc­cess. Bush called his party’s stum­ble a “thump­ing” and Obama called the 2010 elec­tion “hum­bling” and a “shel­lack­ing.”

One long­time Trump ad­viser, who re­quested anonymity to speak can­didly, said Trump has been “spooked” not by the midterms but by a brew­ing re­bel­lion on the right ear­lier this month when he was con­sid­er­ing ac­cept­ing a deal from Democrats to fund the gov­ern­ment through early Fe­bru­ary. Rush Lim­baugh dis­missed the po­ten­tial com­pro­mise pro­gram as “Trump gets noth­ing and the Democrats get ev­ery­thing.” An­other fire­brand, Ann Coul­ter, pub­lished a col­umn ti­tled “Gut­less Pres­i­dent in Wall-less Coun­try.”

“He’s spooked by what the world would be like for him if the base wasn’t there” for what­ever comes from the Mueller probe or House in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the Trump ad­viser said, adding that the volatil­ity of Wall Street has in­creased Trump’s pri­vate frus­tra­tions to in­clude not just Democrats and the me­dia but the Fed­eral Re­serve.

Trump’s cur­rent bor­der stance has polled poorly. A Quin­nip­iac poll in midDe­cem­ber found that 62 per­cent of the coun­try, in­clud­ing 65 per­cent of self-iden­ti­fied in­de­pen­dents and one in three Repub­li­cans, op­pose shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment over wall fund­ing. The same poll found Amer­i­cans op­pose build­ing a wall on the Mex­i­can bor­der by a mar­gin of 54 to 44 per­cent.

Some Trump al­lies, how­ever, said Trump is savvier than his stub­born tweets let on, sug­gest­ing that the pres­i­dent must play to his base and show sol­i­dar­ity on the wall if he wants to move on at some point in 2019 and turn his at­ten­tion to other is­sues such as in­fra­struc­ture or health care.

“It’s de facto play­ing to the base so he can get it done and move on,” long­time GOP con­sul­tant John Braben­der, who has ad­vised Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, said. “He can’t get re­elected with only his base but he needs the sym­bol­ism of what he’s do­ing so they don’t go away. It’s about his cred­i­bil­ity with them and talk­ing about it now so even­tu­ally he can talk about other is­sues.”


Whit Ayres, GOP poll­ster

JABIN BOTSFORD The Wash­ing­ton Post Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has fo­cused on re­as­sur­ing his most ar­dent sup­port­ers of his com­mit­ment to the sig­na­ture bor­der pledge that elec­tri­fied his fol­low­ers dur­ing his 2016 pres­i­den­tial run.

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