Nine months into gaining full control of Washington, Republicans are not where they hoped they’d be. Very far from it, actually. They have no major legislative accomplishments to tout. After this week, they are tipping into a civil war. And early polls suggest voters would rather elect a generic Democrat than a generic Republican in next year’s congressional elections.
All of this was entirely predictable — not that there was much Republican leaders could do about it. And yes, I’m referring to President Trump. But Republicans’ fracturing was evident long before Trump rode down that escalator in Trump Tower two and a half years ago.
“I think we’re trying to figure out when Republicans are either going to hit rock bottom or make the party great again,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican House aide and GOP consultant. “And to me, Trump is a symptom of that as much as he is a current cause.”
Let’s run down three main reasons that the difficult week Republicans just had — and the not-great year they’re still having — were entirely predictable.
1. Trump is Trump.
After Trump got elected, congressional Republicans made a decision to forget the campaign. The ninth Supreme Court seat, repealing Obamacare and passing the first tax bill in decades all took precedence over all the negatives that come with Trump, including the “Access Hollywood” tape, Trump's unpredictability, his rhetoric toward the GOP in the campaign and his fundamental opposition to traditional Republican positions on issues such as trade policy.
But Trump wouldn’t let them forget. Day by day, he proved many Republicans’ worst fears about him. A short list:
1. He’s very defensive and prides himself on “counterpunching” — regardless of whether the criticism is coming from within his own party.
2. He demands loyalty without returning it and casts Republicans as the reason for his failures without apparent consideration of his own role.
3. He’s an untrustworthy dealmaker who can flip positions at a moment’s notice.
4. He’s not ideological and has little grasp of policy.
Republicans hoped against all evidence that Trump would change his ways after the campaign and become more like them. Instead, over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some powerful Republicans proclaim they think Trump is a danger to American democracy.
Trump is Trump, and Republicans — voters and congressional leaders — knew exactly what they’d be getting when he got elected: an erratic leader who thrives on chaos.
“It’s hard to tell how serious he is,” Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration official and economics and health-care policy analyst with the Brookings Institution, told The Fix in September. “He’s made his deficit of trust bigger and bigger.”
2. They are trying to pass major social and economic reform legislation by themselves.
By “themselves,” I mean without incorporating Democrats, which limits the total number of votes they have to pass legislation.
Pushing through major legislation on party line votes is also a political risk. One that is predictable.
In 2010, Democrats passed Obamacare without any Republican votes, and they paid the political price. In the election immediately after Democrats passed Obamacare, they lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives. They have yet to win back the majority.
Republicans aren’t heeding recent history’s warnings. In the summer, they tried to push through an unpopular Obamacare repeal without any Democrats’ votes. After a few Republican defections, it failed by one vote in the Senate. Now, Republicans are trying the same party-line strategy on a tax bill.
3. The Republican Party is changing
And has been happening for a while. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) retired this week because he determined he couldn’t win a GOP primary as a Trump critic. He also said he thought the “fever” that is Trumpism would eventually break, just not in time for the 2018 election.
Don’t be so sure about that, says The Fix’s Aaron Blake. Trump’s anti-establishment and pro-culture war vigor “have been in demand among the GOP base for the better part of the past decade.” See: The tea party and all the controversial GOP Senate candidates that movement helped elevate.
The irony is that Senate Republicans thought they had tamped down on that section of their party. Then Trump happened. They hadn’t lost a primary race in five years until the fall in Alabama, where pro-Trump forces sided against them.
Now, the Republican establishment is in a war against those same Trump forces for the soul of their party. Some Republicans think nothing less than their electoral future is on the line.
“I don’t think we know if it is Trump’s party yet,” said Steve Bell, a former GOP Senate aide who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If it becomes defined by him, though, we will be a minority party for many years.”
Republicans’ troubles were relatively easy to see coming: The tea party. Brushing aside hard lessons learned by Democrats on policymaking. Nominating Trump. For those reasons, if Republicans’ worst-case scenario happens, and they lose control of Washington, we can say that, too, was entirely predictable.