Trump’s focus on pleasing base puts him on risky path for 2019
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 midNovember 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.”
In the days before Christmas, when several options to end the shutdown 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.