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Opinion How Democrats can make Trump chaos a midterm issue

President Trump with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at the White House in December. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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President Trump likes to say his administration is a “fine-tuned machine.” But a poll released Wednesday by Politico and Morning Consult found a growing majority of voters who say Trump is presiding over a disorganized White House, with 62 percent agreeing the administration is either very or somewhat chaotic.

This could become a major issue in November’s midterm elections.

That chaos percentage is actually up from two months ago, when only 54 percent agreed with the statement. The increasing tendency of voters to believe the Trump administration is something of a shambolic mess gives Democrats yet another cudgel with which to go after Republican congressional candidates in the upcoming fall elections — that is if they strike the right tone.

Campaigning against Trump presents something of a challenge, after all. One takeaway from the 2016 election is that making the campaign sales pitch mainly based on Trump’s character and accomplishments (or lack thereof) is a less-than-effective strategy.

During an interview on Wednesday, pollster Matt McDermott of Whitman Insight Strategies shared a possible path forward.  The trick, he said, is to make the argument that Congress — specifically Republicans in Congress — are not performing one of their most important duties: exercising effective oversight of the executive branch.

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This way, McDermott says, Democrats can sidestep the electoral tripwire of excoriating Trump’s character, instead shifting the focus of their attacks to actual events occurring under the Trump administration that Congress is refusing to take effective action to stop. “They don’t need to mention Trump,” he said. “They just need to focus their attention on House Republicans and their action or inaction to date.”

“For me, the buzzword is accountability,” McDermott added. “People expect their elected officials to be held accountable for their actions. Democrats need to simply say we expect our elected officials to live and govern by a set of norms and standards, and we expect the House and Senate to maintain those standards, and they are not doing that.”

The way the White House is run — and its results — offer Democrats multiple opportunities to make their case. Take, for instance, the ongoing Russia investigation or the appalling awfulness of any number of the president’s appointments, such as the seemingly never-ending scandals involving Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. While the public might not be totally focused on these stories, Democratic candidates can still use them to point toward the failure of House and Senate Republicans to properly do their jobs.

In other words, Democratic candidates can make the case that leaving Republicans in control of Congress is both enabling and contributing to the chaos emanating from the White House.

There is some evidence in the Morning Consult poll to show the salience of campaigning on a platform of restoring order to national politics. While more than two-thirds of Republicans say they don’t view the White House as particularly chaotic, less than ten percent of Democrats and a mere quarter of independent voters said the same. In addition, more voters (55 percent) held an unfavorable view of Republicans in Congress than they did of their Democratic peers (50 percent.)

Trump, not surprisingly, is sensitive to the accusation that he is presiding over a chaotic and dysfunctional White House:

The irony is that it is often argued that Trump benefits from the chaos he creates. And, indeed, it is possible that it leads to less focus on particular examples of administration corruption (Hi, Mick Mulvaney!) or ineptitude (Hi, Betsy DeVos!). Amid this bedlam, it becomes all but impossible for anyone to manage a sustained focus on any one story.

There is also the risk of a burn-out factor, in which the chaos leads increasing numbers of voters to blame both parties, stop following the news and check out. But engagement seems to be running high, at least on the left: MSNBC achieved its best ratings ever during the first quarter of 2018, while in March, “The Rachel Maddow Show” leapt over Fox News’s “Hannity” to take the positon of most-viewed cable news program. And most of the elections of the last year have demonstrated a supercharged Democratic base, not a dispirited one.

Meanwhile, Republicans are giving Democrats new openings to prosecute the case against Trump chaos. Just Wednesday morning, at the annual Milken Institute’s Global Conference 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif., House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that if Democrats gain control of either the House or the Senate in the November elections, “you’ll have gridlock, you’ll have subpoenas.”

Ah, yes, oversight and accountability. As McDermott said: “I think for some people, a vote for Democratic candidate will be a vote to restore sanity.”