Congress, conservatism, conservatives, Democrats, deregulation, establishment, Im-Politic, infrastructure, John McCain, Marco Rubio, midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi, Obamacare, Populism, regulation, Republicans, tax cuts, Trade, Trump
Ever since Donald Trump made clear his staying power in presidential politics, his more populist supporters have tried to beat back efforts of more establishment-oriented backers to “normalize” him by insisting that they “Let Trump be Trump.” The results of Tuesday’s midterm elections tell me that the populists’ arguments on substance (as opposed to the President’s penchant for inflammatory and/or vulgar rhetoric) are stronger than ever, but that the obstacles that they’ve faced remain formidable.
The “Let Trump” argument contends that the President’s best hope to attract the most voters has always been his willingness to reject positions that for decades have been conservative and Republican hallmarks, but that have become increasingly unpopular outside the realms of most national GOP office-holders, other Washington, D.C.-based professional Republicans and conservatives, and the donors so largely responsible for their power, influence, and affluence. These maverick Trump positions have included not only trade and immigration; but the role of government and the related issues of entitlements, healthcare, and infrastructure spending; and Wall Street reform.
But since his election, as I’ve argued, Mr. Trump’s willingness to embrace the full maverick agenda has been blunted by his vulnerability on the scandals front. Specifically, he’s seemed so worried about impeachment threats from Democrats that he’s been forced to shore up his support with the conventional Republicans that dominate the party’s ranks in Congress. Why else, I’ve written, would his first two years in office have so prominently featured strong support for right-of-center standbys like major tax and federal discretionary spending cuts; curbs on regulation; repeal of Obamacare; and bigger military budgets, rather than, say a massive push to repair and retool America’s aging or simply outdated transportation, communications, energy, and other networks?
It’s true that Trump remained firmly in (bipartisan) populist mode on trade (notably, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and slapping tariffs on metals imports and many Chinese-made products), and just as firmly in (conservative) populist mode with various administrative measures and proposals to limit and/or transform the makeup of legal immigration – though many of his most ardent backers accuse him of punting on his campaign promise to build a Border Wall.
Yet this Trump populism strongly reflected the views of the Republican base – a development now not lost on conventional conservatives when it comes to immigration, even though they’ve been slow to recognize the big shift among Republican voters against standard free trade policies. By contrast, the President has apparently feared that Congressional Republicans would draw the line on the rest of their traditional agenda – or at least that he could curry favor with them by pushing it.
The midterm results, however, might have brought these political calculations to a turning point. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that most House and Senate Republicans, along with the donors and most of the party’s D.C.-based establishment, are still all-in on their tax, spending, regulatory, and Obamacare positions.
On the other hand, according to the exit polls and other surveys, the tax cuts didn’t even greatly impress Republican voters (let alone independents). And most Americans aren’t willing to risk losing Obamacare benefits they already enjoy (especially coverage for pre-existing medical conditions) by supporting Republican replacement ideas that may be less generous.
The message being sent by all of the above trends and situations is that President Trump may have even more latitude than he’s recognized to cut deals with Democrats. At the same time, the Democrats’ capture of the House of Representatives on Tuesday and signs that they’ll ramp up the scandal investigations could keep preventing him from “being Trump” on such issues and possibly antagonize most Republican lawmakers.
Of course, my political neck isn’t on the line here. But I’d advise Mr. Trump to follow his more unconventional instincts. The Congressional Republicans still uncomfortable with him ideologically must be aware that his personal popularity with GOP supporters has grown significantly since mid-2017, and that this surge owes almost nothing to their own priorities. So if they don’t help staunchly resist any intensified Democratic probes, their political futures could look pretty dicey, too.
One big sign that ever more establishment Republicans are getting “woke” on the obsolescence of much establishment conservatism: the efforts by long-time mainstream conservative/Republican favorites like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to develop a Trump-ian agenda that can survive Mr. Trump’s presidency. Further, resistance in Washington to their efforts is likely to continue weakening, since so many of the President’s ideological opponents on the Republican side are leaving the House and Senate. (And of course, their spiritual leader, veteran Arizona Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain recently passed away.)
To be sure, Mr. Trump yesterday (rhetorically, anyway) erected his own obstacle to deal-cutting – his declaration that he won’t be receptive if investigations persist and broaden. House Democratic leader (and still favorite to become Speaker again) Nancy Pelosi has pretty clearly, however, signaled that she herself is not impeachment-obsessed, even if those exit polls say most of the Democratic base is.
As a result, I can’t entirely blame the President for still feeling spooked by the Democrats – at least this week. But what an irony if the most important opponent “letting Trump be Trump-ism” – whose broad popularity could well combine with the advantages of incumbency to outflank the Democrats, win the President a second term, and pave the way for a truly earth-shaking, lasting realignment of American politics – turned out to be President Trump himself.