(Gerald Herbert/AP)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

There are increasing signs that Republicans and political advisers to President Trump believe one way to avert a massive midterm bloodbath — or, at least, minimize it — is by trying to reach a bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending. Trump tweeted this morning:

Taken by itself, this might not mean much, but The Post reports today that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also looking at infrastructure spending as the next big step Republicans should take, because it has “bipartisan appeal.” The Post also reports that aides to Trump are hoping to make infrastructure key to next year’s agenda.

Here’s one way to understand this: Amid a rapidly deteriorating political environment, Trump and Republicans are going to try to get back to the more politically palatable side of Trumpism — the one that actually did offer putative economic solutions pitched at working-class voters — after spending the past year fully betraying it.

The public posture right now among Trump and Republicans is that, having triumphed in the Great and Glorious Tax Struggle of 2017, they can go into 2018 with a huge accomplishment to sell to voters. Republicans cut middle-class taxes, and tax-hiking Democrats fought that to the death! Trump also tweeted this morning that the tax plan is “very popular.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), are so emboldened by their recent triumph — Ryan has “no concerns whatsoever” about public opinion on the tax bill — that they are saying they will storm forward into “entitlement reform,” i.e., realizing the other side of Ryan’s dream. The story line here is that the politics will just fall into place if Republicans forge ahead with full-scale orthodox Ryanism — regressive tax cuts that lavish most of their benefits on the job creators sold with the promise of a huge boost to economic growth and workers’ wages, plus a shredding of the safety net sold as “reform.”

But most Republicans surely know this is nonsense. As it is, the tax bill is currently polling in the mid-20s and low 30s. And on the big political picture, this quote, from a Republican strategist, is enormously instructive in this regard:

Some Republicans worry about taking aim at any safety-net programs on the heels of passing a $1.5 trillion tax bill that independent analysts say does far more for corporations and the wealthy than the middle class.

“I think the optics are terrible,” said John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime Florida-based GOP consultant. “At least at this point, the Democrats are winning the argument that the tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthy and big business. To come in right behind that and start whacking the poor, the working poor, will not serve Republicans well in 2018.”

In other words, the tax bill is perceived as the plutocratic giveaway to the wealthy that it really is, and the fact that it would bust the deficit — creating both an opening and a motive (from Ryan’s perspective) to shred the safety net — risks rendering the overall GOP vision even more toxic, particularly if Republicans act on that goal. This analysis of the politics of the moment, by the way, is shared by Democratic strategists.

Looming in the background of all this is Trump’s deep unpopularity. Politico reports that Trump’s advisers have been directly warning him that he must get his approval numbers up among suburban voters after the big Democratic wins in Virginia and Alabama, which were fueled by strong turnout among nonwhites and Democratic base voters, and a shift away from Republicans among more educated suburban whites. It also bears mentioning that both of those outcomes suggested relatively lackluster turnout among the blue-collar and rural whites that make up the Trump/GOP base.

Why Trump did not make a serious effort on infrastructure early on has always been a puzzle. The promise of infrastructure spending — plus the vow to protect the safety net and unrig the tax code and economy for working-class whites from areas of the country left behind by globalization and abandoned by elites who rigged the economy on their own behalf — surely played some role in his victory. Instead, Trump spent the last year fully embracing orthodox Ryanism, with the failed effort to roll back health coverage for millions of Trump voters, and the successful drive for tax cuts overwhelmingly tilted toward the top, while doubling down on racism (after Charlottesville), xenophobia (stepped up deportations, ending protections for the “dreamers”) and misogyny (fully endorsing Roy Moore). That has produced the combination of energized nonwhites and alienated suburban whites that now has Republicans so terrified about next year.

Republicans are projecting great confidence that they’ll be able to turn perceptions of the tax plan around and convert it into an advantage, at a minimum by using it to unite and energize GOP base voters. But whatever is to be on that front, it seems very likely that Trump and Republicans will turn to an infrastructure package — finally — as a way to try to lift his approval numbers and dispel the damage done by a year of going in the other direction.

Update: I should have added that this new infrastructure push is probably going to be a tax-break and privatization scheme, not a real public expenditure. That was always what Trump’s plan was likely to be, and there probably wouldn’t have been any way to do serious spending with this GOP Congress.

* WAR ERUPTS INSIDE WHITE HOUSE: The New York Times reports that a “heated exchange” erupted between White House political director Bill Stepien and Cory Lewandowski, a senior adviser at the outside pro-Trump political group America First Policies:

The meeting centered on the midterm elections … Mr. Lewandowski aggressively criticized the Republican National Committee, as well as several White House departments … He told the president that his government staff and political advisers at the party committee were doing little to help him … Mr. Lewandowski called the White House team too insular, and he said it had done little to tend to fellow Republicans or to conduct outreach with outside groups and supporters.

With Trump’s approval mired in the 30s, and with losses in Virginia and Alabama suggesting a wave might be coming, no wonder they’re on edge.

* TRUMP STILL TALKS TO BANNON: The Post also reports on the angry meeting in the White House:

The gathering saw tempers flare as aides vented their frustrations with electoral defeats this year and concerns about the 2018 political map … the conflicts underscore the tension surrounding the president’s political operation … Advisers such as Lewandowski and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, now at Breitbart, continue to talk to the president, who likes them personally, even as other advisers try to keep them away.

Keep it up, Steve, your effort to destroy the GOP establishment is going great.

* McCONNELL ANTICIPATES BRUTAL FIGHT FOR SENATE: McConnell tells the Washington Examiner:

“The environment today is not great, the generic ballot’s not good, and I’d love to see the president’s approval rating higher. So I think we should anticipate a real knock down, drag out — even on the Senate side.”

We have not yet seen just how big a deal that Alabama win was for Democrats — though it’s still very, very tough, there is now a path to the majority that wasn’t there before.

* GOP LEADERS EXPECT MIDTERM BLOODBATH: Politico reports:

McConnell (R-Ky.) has said privately that both chambers could be lost in November. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has told donors that he fears a wave of swing district Republican lawmakers could retire rather than seek reelection.

Keep this in mind when you read complaints from GOP operatives that the media is being too bearish on GOP midterm chances out of an alleged bias toward Democrats.

* CONGRESS FACES BRUTAL CHALLENGES IN 2018: Congress passed a short-term bill averting a government shutdown, but Bloomberg looks at what’s to come early next year:

Among these are resolving a long-running dispute over defense spending levels; raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which came back into force this month; and dealing with the looming deportations of undocumented immigrants, known as dreamers, who arrived in the U.S. as children. … To get the stopgap bill enacted, lawmakers dropped plans to provide long-term financing for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

It’s hard to see how some of those get through without the support of a lot of Democrats, so things will get very interesting if Dems can use their leverage skillfully.

* NEW TAX LAW WILL INVENTIVIZE FURTHER GAMING: Paul Krugman runs through all the ways the GOP tax plan will encourage gaming of the tax code, but mostly by the wealthy:

Over the months ahead, as thousands of top-dollar accountants and lawyers get to work, expect to see many more routes to tax avoidance emerge — but only for the rich and well connected. … there will be hundreds of tax-avoidance games like these, costing taxpayers billions if not hundreds of billions in lost revenue. But only those who are both affluent and sneaky will be able to play these games.

To underscore what a huge betrayal this is, recall the story Trump told during the campaign about how he enriched himself off the rigged economy and is now here to set things right.

* FOUR THREATS TO MUELLER: Richard Painter and Norman Eisen run through the main threats to the special counsel probe: Trump could install someone at the Justice Department to smother it, try to remove Robert S. Mueller III, issue pardons or smear him (which his allies are doing). And:

The drumbeat of distortions and threats will, sadly, continue and must be promptly rebutted by commentators, Congress and the public. Democracy demands defense with analysis, opinion and the readiness for public protest … Peaceful force is something that Mr. Trump has made clear he understands. We must continue to deploy it, lest the president achieve by debasement what our collective efforts have thus far prevented him from doing directly: stopping Robert Mueller’s investigation.

It is important to keep building up a sense that removal will be met by a forceful response (not that Republicans are interested in sending such a signal), to hopefully dissuade him from the worst.