The Kübler-Ross Politics of 2017

Amy Walter
December 13, 2017

In just one year, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in political fortunes for the party in power. They have lost high profile races in a light blue state (Virginia) and a dark red one (Alabama). They have failed, thus far, to pass any meaningful legislation, despite having total control of both Houses of Congress. The one bill they are likely to pass before the end of the year is garnering just 25 to 30 percent support among the electorate. Fewer Americans identify as Republican today than they did back in 2016. And, of course, President Trump’s approval ratings are mired in the mid-to-low 30’s — driven almost entirely by self-inflicted wounds, not outside events.

The shift in mood among Democrats over the last year has been as dramatic. It’s been a bit like watching someone work through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Democrats spent much of December of 2016 in a state of disbelief: Did that really happen? How did that happen? By early 2017 they had moved on to anger: Hillary ran a terrible campaign; Democrats had no message; the Obama coalition is unsustainable. By spring there was bargaining: We must not focus our attacks on Trump or his voters. We have to make peace with the white working class electorate who is anxious and angry and desperate for real change. Democratic leaders in Washington tamped down talk of impeachment and focused instead on “A Better Deal.”

Today, however, that reticence is gone. Democratic senators are openly calling for the President to resign over allegations of sexual harassment. Not one red state Democrat supported the GOP tax bill. The fear of Trump and his legions of establishment-hating voters has receded. Democrats are now living off the adrenaline and energy that comes with an awakening of their own base; a base that was disillusioned and dispirited in 2016. Anger is the most powerful GOTV force there is.

Republicans, meanwhile, are having something of a Kubler-Ross experience themselves. Some are still living in denial. They see losses in Virginia and Alabama — and underperformance of Republican candidates in House special elections in Montana, Kansas and South Carolina — as candidate or campaign specific. The President falls into this category as well. And, to be fair, he has no other campaign experience to fall back on but for the only one in which he was a candidate. As such, the motto seems to be: if it worked last year, it’ll work again. Earlier this year, Trump had a choice: try to grow the narrow base of support that got him the win in 2016, or simply cater to that base. He chose the latter. And, in turn that narrow base has gotten even smaller. Trump has done nothing to keep the reluctant Trump voters, those Republicans or independents who were wary of Trump’s style and temperament and voted for him anyway, on his side. Many of those voters who wanted to give Trump a chance to act presidential, a chance to learn the ropes, are now growing impatient and dispirited. This is why you are seeing suburban, highly educated voters swing toward the Democratic candidates.

Another group of Republicans are in the bargaining phase. They understand the existential danger that Trump poses to their Congressional majority, but they think they can outwit and outlast him. They can pass a tax bill to show their competence at legislating. They can focus on running "all politics is local" campaigns that are detached from the dysfunction of Washington. They can try to show independence from Trump. Most of these Republicans are people who haven’t lived through a wave election. Which, to be fair, is about two-thirds of the GOP conference in Congress.

Then there are those Republicans who have been in Washington for a while. They are at the acceptance phase. These are the men and women who lived through 2006 and 2008. When I talk to them — as I have this week — they are becoming more and more convinced that 2018 is shaping up to be a very, very bad year for their party. They have tried denial and bargaining in the past. They know that it doesn’t work.

 Republicans do have some built in structural advantages. Some of which are new since 2006. The combination of gerrymandering and self-sorting as well as deeply engrained partisanship give Republicans a built in line of defense against a bad political environment. In a statewide race, it doesn’t matter where your fired up Democrats or disillusioned Republicans live. If more of your voters turn-out than theirs, you win. In House races, if those voters are all concentrated in the same district — or too spread out over multiple districts — their influence is diluted. However, these structural advantages are like levies that have yet to be tested in a serious storm. Some may have survived category 1 or 2 storms, but they’ve never had to weather a category 5 level wind and surge gust.

Democrats may be giddy today, but they should also be wary of believing that Trump bashing alone will get them to congressional majorities. The outsized national attention on Virginia and Alabama won’t be present in 2018, when national media attention will be divided between hundreds of other candidates and campaigns. Not every Democrat should expect to run against a candidate accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. Not every Democrat should expect to get millions of donors and viral media success simply by running against a high-profile Republican or by getting a twitter spat with the president. They still have to run real campaigns, with a real message and real contrast with their opponents. Even so, the mood in Washington has changed as dramatically as the recent weather pattern. The president and his party are as  weak as they’ve been yet, while Democrats are as emboldened as they’ve been since losing last fall. The question now is if this is permanent state of being.