Trump, the GOP and 2018

Trump, the GOP and 2018

By Hastings Wyman –

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to shake up Washington and do things his way, not the old way. Not only has his governing style been new, but he’s moved forward on some hot-button issues to keep his campaign promises. He reversed President Obama’s policy on transgender access to rest rooms, unblocked the barriers to pipeline construction and off-shore exploration for petroleum, ramped up enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, and successfully supported a tax reform package that is favorable to business as well as individuals. Many of these policies, of course, have upset a lot of folks.

Once in the White House, Trump’s style of moving forward on these and other major issues has been way out of line with what Washington officialdom is used to. In the past, cabinet members and key staff in various departments gathered information on, for example, tariffs and what effect they have on the US economy. With that information, the President would then make his decision public. By contrast, Trump just announces what he’s going to do, and lets the bureaucrats scramble to keep up with him. His base seems to love that, but Washington officials do not.

When he makes a major announcement – tariffs, meeting with Kim Jong Un, approving pipeline construction, cracking down on sanctuary cities – he impresses his base as a no-nonsense go-getter who knows how to do what he told voters he would do.

Trump’s trust is in his own judgment, even spur-of-the moment decisions, rather than that of the “experts.” Thus, there was apparently no conferring with either the State Department or the Defense Department before Trump announced that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The President made his decision after meeting with South Korea’s national security advisor and being assured that Kim Jong Un was “frank and sincere,” Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post.

This trust in himself and not in the opinions of those around him is reflected in the high turnover rate for his top-level officials and staff. The turnover in Trump’s White House is significantly higher than at the same point in President Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s first term. Forty-three percent of the top positions in Trump’s White House have turned over, compared to 24% in Obama’s and 33% in Bush’s.

The next head to roll in Trump’s administrative team is reportedly that of H. R. McMaster, a three-star general serving as the President’s national security advisor. This comes on top of the sudden departure, at President Trump’s order, of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who – according to published reports – had thought he was doing a good job that the President appreciated, and to the departure of Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor. And the rumor mill has it that other firings are in the works, including members of his senior White House staff.

Trump seems to thrive on the firing and hiring to get things done the way he wants them done. But to Washington’s high-level bureaucrats, this game of musical chairs is a sign of uncertainty about the direction that policy will be taking.

This is not to say that the old way is better than Trump’s way, only that the government departments and agencies that have been accustomed to one way of proceeding on policy shifts must now, for better or for worse, become accustomed to another.

In addition to his “you’re fired” management method, Trump’s personal style, however raucous, does appeal to much of his political base. Speaking to a campaign rally in support of Saccone, Trump joked, “You know how easy it is to be presidential? But you would be so bored,” reported The Hill. And Paul Ambrose, a retired apparel manufacture in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, told the Washington Post, “He’s got the worst haircut in the world … Insolent. Arrogant. Obnoxious. But he gets things done.”

However, his lack of carefully worded comments on sensitive issues has also gotten him into serious political trouble. His attempt at a neutral stance between those for and against Confederate monuments was not carefully worded, and he left the impression that torch-bearing Nazis were some of the “good people” demonstrating in Charlottesville.

The latest Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of recent approval rating polls showed 41% approve of him to 54.3% who disapprove. Trump was under water in all ten polls taken so far in March. Moreover, the average of “direction of the country” surveys showed only 34.4% believe the country is headed in the right direction to 57% who say wrong direction.

Trump does, however, get some good reviews. When asked about the President’s handling of the economy, he gets 49.5% approve to 44.6% disapprove. He gets more “approves” than “disapproves” in six of the eight surveys taken this year.

Given the low unemployment rate of 4.1%, the lowest in 17 years; the surge in the stock market; the – so far – low inflation rate; and the increasingly good reviews of the tax reform package, Trump’s above-water ratings on the economy are not surprising. What is unusual is that the “good times” have not boosted President Trump’s approval rating or the Republican Party’s performance at the polls.

The GOP’s problem is that it is not the economy that has energized the coalition of gays, Latinos, African Americans, pro-choice women, and young people, et al, who turned out heavily in the elections since Trump’s election. They are poised to make up the “Blue Wave” that could well sweep the GOP out of control of the House and perhaps the Senate as well.

The most shocking thing about the ultra-close Democratic victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district is not just the sharp decline from Trump’s 20-point lead in 2016, but that the district was adjacent to Pittsburgh and his recent announcement that he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum should have helped the Republican candidate.

But Democrat Conor Lamb endorsed Trump’s tariffs, which kept the labor unions behind him, and coopted many of the other items of the GOP right: He was pro-life, against gun control and supported “fracking” to gain access to oil and gas.

Lamb’s veering off the liberal path did not keep the Democratic Party from making sure that his campaign was sufficiently funded.

Democrat Conor Lamb raised $3.9 million to Republican Rick Saccone’s $937,000, an appalling gap that should make those who control the GOP purse strings in Washington and elsewhere ashamed.

Nate Silver, the statistics guru, wrote on his FiveThirtyEight.com website that in the Pennsylvania election, the high turnout, more like a mid-term election than a special election, was a bad omen for the GOP, because it resembled the turnout in a midterm election. He added that turnout was also high in last year’s Alabama Senate race and the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, which the GOP won, but underperformed Trump’s 2016 vote. Regardless of the size of the turnout, though, in the eight special elections this year, Republican candidates ran an average of 17% below Trump’s margin in 2016.

Overall, Trump’s style and substance has proven unpopular with many voters. Even in 2016-2017 special elections that the GOP won, the Republican vote fell off substantially from Trump’s share of the vote in 2016. Among Trump’s base, however, those who revel in his apparent lack of polish and refusal to bow to “political correctness,” Trump is still strong. Thus, Republican candidates can’t oppose Trump, or they get a tough primary. The GOP has a tiger by the tail. Stay tuned.