The GOP's Balancing Act

Charlie Cook New
February 1, 2019

Now that the federal government has reopened, at least for another three weeks, the question on a lot of minds is, “What now?” As this column noted last week in suggesting that the end was near, nobody wins from a government shutdown, but somebody usually loses. Democrats should refrain from spiking the football in the end zone—they didn’t win, though President Trump surely lost, and he didn’t do congressional Republicans any favors in the process. But you have to say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi dispelled any doubts about her ability to lead House Democrats.

In the raft of new polls out, the most interesting question was in the Jan. 20-22 Fox News poll, which asked, “How many paychecks do you think you could miss before you wouldn’t be able to pay your bills?” Twenty percent of the registered voters sampled replied none, and 18 percent answered just one missed paycheck. Another 16 percent said two checks would put them under, meaning that 54 percent of voters are within two paychecks of severe financial stress.

Both parties had real image problems to begin with. As the Jan. 20-23 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pointed out, while the GOP's rating is 34 percent positive, 43 percent negative, the Democratic Party's is 35 percent positive, 40 percent negative. While the next election isn’t tomorrow, both parties have real strategic and messaging challenges.

For Democrats in safe states and districts, they can say or do pretty much whatever they want and probably keep their seats, though they might be mindful that what they say or do spills out into other states and districts, making the lives of some of their colleagues in more challenging areas a lot harder—particularly the 40 Democrats now representing districts that were in Republican hands last month. (Not every Democrat has the luxury of representing a district that Hillary Clinton won with 77 percent, as a certain very well-known 29-year-old New Yorker does.)

Someone doesn’t have to be a racist, nativist, or nationalist to believe that there ought to be meaningful borders. A smart approach for Democrats would be to say again and again, “This was never about whether to have border security. We never favored open borders or hanging a sign out on the Mexican (or Canadian) border saying, ‘Y'all Come!’ It was about having effective and efficient border security. In some places, a wall makes a lot of sense. In other places, a fence would be preferable; in still other places, electronic surveillance or drones. In some mountainous or other rather inhospitable areas with tough terrain, maybe nothing different needs to happen.”

Republicans face a more problematic challenge: how to create some distance between themselves and an unpopular president without alienating his very loyal base. One of the findings in the new NBC/WSJ poll was that among Republicans and those independents who lean Republican, 51 percent consider themselves to be more of a supporter of Trump, 38 percent more of a supporter of the Republican Party. While Trump does have an impressive job-approval rating of 86 percent among Republicans (just 13 percent disapprove), among independents his approval rating is just 39 percent (with 53 percent disapproving), meaning that in swing districts and states, particularly suburbs, blind loyalty to Trump can be a real problem. Ponder Trump’s 33-percent-approval, 65-percent-disapproval numbers among white women who are college graduates; not long ago, they were part of the GOP base.

Republicans ought to take a page from President Clinton’s 1995 and 1996 playbook. Democrats suffered devastating losses in the 1994 election, including losing their 40-year majority in the House, as well as the Senate, where they had been in charge for 34 of the preceding 40 years. Clinton could ill afford to alienate his base, but he needed to expand far beyond that base in order to get reelected two years later. Using his now-famous triangulation strategy, creating roughly equal distance from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, Clinton was able to thread the political needle and was reelected with points to spare.

As with Democrats, congressional Republicans in safe seats can do or say whatever they want, keeping in mind that they can complicate matters for their colleagues in more competitive jurisdictions. But for those in swing states and districts, the best strategy is to associate themselves with some of the more popular policies of the Trump administration while keeping a distance from his style and language. That balancing act is a challenge, but far preferable to either staying in bed with him or cutting and running. Sometimes both walking and chewing gum are required. Many Senate Republicans and a few dozen House Republicans have done this for some time; their party would have been better off in November had more taken this course.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on January 29, 2019