This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 10, 2017
Congressional Republicans in general and the more conservative members in particular are already finding life in the president’s party a lot more complicated than it was when they could simply throw rocks at the Obama administration and hold hearings on Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The challenge for conservatives is that President Trump is not really one of them. He seems predisposed to big spending packages for things like border walls, infrastructure (which, in fact, is badly needed), and an expanded military. He also wants to cut taxes. Since he’s unlikely to provide sufficient cuts to offset this drain on the Treasury, we are likely to see soaring deficits, something that turns the stomachs of true conservatives.
It’s also not hard to imagine Trump wanting to “prime the pump,” goosing the economy with additional spending. Every time he does this, it will cause a dilemma for every Republican member. On the one hand, most didn’t run for Congress to pile up more federal debt, and many blasted President Obama on spending for the last eight years. But given that Trump carried the congressional districts of 213 Republican House members (Clinton won 23, and four more are or will soon be vacant as their incumbents take Cabinet positions), voting against his proposals risks attacks from the president, either on Twitter or even at rallies on their home turf. Their ideologies and hearts will tug one way, but their survival instincts will pull the other.
By mid-May, a more detailed 2018 budget should be proposed by the administration. To get that balanced within 10 years, as the candidate promised, would require about $8.5 trillion in spending cuts with another $1.5 trillion tacked on in interest. This summer could see appropriations bills, tax-reform legislation, and some kind of infrastructure package. That doesn’t count replacing Obamacare.
Keep in mind that, at some point, an increase in the debt limit will come due, the first that would be passed under unified Republican control of the government in 12 years. Life was so much simpler and easier when Republicans had President Obama to point the finger at, better yet when they could blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well. Metaphorically speaking, the Republican dog has caught the car.
While members of Congress have traditionally hesitated before voting against a president of their own party, that was in pre-Trump days. Trump doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules of politics. It’s hard to imagine President Reagan or either of the Bushes, even if Twitter existed during their presidencies, attacking Republican lawmakers by name in the way that Trump has jabbed Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham.
We all know that midterm-election voters tend to be older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican than those who go to the polls in presidential-election years. But we also know that angry, disaffected voters are most motivated to turn out for the midterms. There is no question that in November’s presidential election, the passion and energy was behind Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton. If you had to say where the energy and passion is right now, I would say it’s with the Democrats. The party out of power tends to be more motivated than the one in charge, especially if complacency sets in.
Republicans might want to think about what happened to Democrats during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. He had a unique appeal that motivated his backers in 2008, but they mostly didn’t show up in the 2010 midterm elections to vote for Joe or Jane Democrat, costing the party its House majority.
The Obama devotees turned out again in 2012 to elect him and other Democrats, but when the 2014 midterms came around, the remaining Joe and Jane Democrats again paid the price, this time losing the Senate majority. Obama had a unique appeal that did not convey in midterm elections to other Democrats. Will that also be true for Trump backers? Will they show up in the midterms to vote for a Republican lawmaker who may not look or sound much like their president—especially one who hasn’t reliably supported him anyway? Maybe not.
The odds and demographic turnout patterns in midterms still favor Republicans holding onto their House majority. The paucity of GOP senators up for reelection in tough states in 2018 presents a very steep climb for Democrats, but this is not going to be a very easy two years for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
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