After an unprecedented and unexpected 2016, it would be unwise to expect a return to normal in 2017. Beyond the fact that we have the most unconventional president in our lifetime, the two parties themselves have unique challenges to their identity and their effectiveness.
Most important, both parties are built upon unstable coalitions. For Democrats, it is a coalition driven by demographics. The Democratic mantra for the last eight years has been built around the idea that an increasingly diverse and urbanizing electorate was going to build them a permanent Electoral College majority. But, as we saw in 2016 and every midterm election since 2008, the only Democrat who was able to mobilize the “Obama coalition” was Barack Obama himself.
Democrats most immediate challenge isn’t demography, it’s geography. Democrats are simply too highly concentrated in highly urbanized America, while Republicans are better distributed across the country. In fact, about one-third of the House conference comes from just three dark blue, coastal states - New York, Massachusetts and California. This makes winning control of the House a daunting challenge. It also makes it hard for the Democrats to appeal to a constituency that looks different from the one they currently represent.
As my colleague David Wasserman has pointed out, Republicans have a built-in four-point geographic advantage. In 2016, for example, Republicans won 51 percent of the popular vote cast for Congress, yet that translated into control of 55 percent of the seats in Congress. Even when Republicans lose the popular vote, as they did in 2012 when they took 49 percent of the popular vote, they were able to capture 53 percent of the seats in Congress.
In the Senate, Democrats have a different kind of “geography” problem. In 2018 Democrats have to defend ten seats in states carried by Trump - five of which he carried by double digits. Trump, meanwhile, seems happy to exploit this Democratic vulnerability. In response to concerns about Democratic obstruction of a GOP-driven Obamacare replacement, Trump told reporters “I won some of those states [where Democrats sit] by numbers that nobody has seen. I will be out there campaigning.”
For the first time in years, Democrats aren’t setting the agenda from the perch of the White House, they are reacting to it. That creates a lot of stressors that we can’t predict. And, like any party out of power, they lack the ability to drive a “narrative” and a unified message. Many believe the DNC chairperson should be the public face of the minority party. However, as we saw with the RNC in the Obama-years, that person has very limited impact on policy. Just ask Reince Priebus about how the whole 2012 autopsy worked out. The job of the party chairperson is more technocrat than visionary. Their success in 2018 and 2020 is less dependent on their vision of governing than it is on how well - or poorly - Republicans do at actually governing.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a shaky coalition of their own. As we saw throughout the Obama years, the House GOP leadership had very little capacity to rein in its rogue members. Having a GOP controlled Senate and White House will help heal some rifts (winning is the greatest unifying force in the world). However, there’s a new wrinkle for the GOP to grapple with this year: the fact that the Trump coalition and the traditional Republican coalition aren’t necessarily on the same page.
A recent survey by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan found that a sizable chunk of Trump supporters look favorably on unions and are happy to see those making more than $250,000 pay more in taxes. And, these voters are also very nervous about any attempts to rein in entitlement spending - a top priority for Speaker Ryan.
Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell have had their policies and priorities teed up for years. They’ve just been waiting for a GOP president to help implement them. Trump, meanwhile, has shown an incredible, um, flexibility on issues, policies and priorities. Without an ideological core to drive him and with no experience in the give and take of the legislative process, there’s no telling what, or how, he will govern.
We’ve already seen plenty of GOPers break with their commitment to fiscal austerity in support for Trump’s infamous “Wall” along the southern border. In reporting done by the conservative news outlet The Daily Signal in mid-November “conservatives made clear they could swallow the high expense of a border wall—cost estimates have ranged from $10 billion to $20 billion, according to the Associated Press—and that their support won’t represent a betrayal of their fiscal principles.” Freedom Caucus leader Raul Labrador, a Republican from Idaho, told the Daily Signal,“The costs are going to be high, but that is what we are going to fight. We are going to fight: ‘Yeah, we will give you this, but what are you going to cut in government?’ And one of the things we are going to cut is illegal immigration, and that has a cost to American society.”
There are sure to be plenty more cases where the once principled stands of many GOP lawmakers on spending, deficits and are foreign policy become less rigid under a Trump Administration. This isn’t new or unique to Trump. Cognitive dissonance is a mainstay of politics. What we don’t know is what the breaking point may be for these law makers. Additional taxes for an Obamacare replacement? Deficit spending on infrastructure? And, of course, it doesn’t take many dissident voices in the conference to derail the best-laid plans of the leadership or a new White House.
The give and take of legislating is not something that Trump is used to doing - and he’s not particularly patient with its slow pace. While congressional GOPers are sending mixed signals about how quickly the Obamacare repeal/replace could happen, Trump has made it clear he expects quick action. He told the New York Times this week that he wanted to see a repeal vote “probably some time next week,” and said “the replace will be very quickly or simultaneously, very shortly thereafter.” We also know that he does not feel obligated to follow “regular order” or feel any sort of kinship with the legislative body. He’s just as likely to use his Twitter feed to chastise members of his own party as he does those on the other side.
Most important, Trump’s mantra - and that of his many of his supporters - is to get stuff done quickly without being beholden to the GOP elites in DC. Success for Ryan and McConnell means getting an agenda passed that, among other things, addresses the concerns of those elites (corporate tax reform, reining in federal spending and a less restrictive regulatory environment). K Street and Wall Street loves the fact that there’s a new GOP Congress and White House. But, Trump stumped on the promise of reviving Main Street. There’s a way to make both of those happen. But, it’s not as easy in reality as it looked on the campaign trail.
If I can give any advice for 2017 it is to banish terms like “normally” and “traditionally” and “historically” from your lexicon. There is nothing traditional about Trump. Some days things are going to look totally familiar to those of us steeped in the ways of Washington. Other days they won’t. However, unconventional doesn’t always mean unsuccessful. Trump’s campaign was messy and unpredictable and at times surreal. But, it worked. Whether it continues to work in governing is something we can’t know now. And, we may not have a good grasp of for quite some time.
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