Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2008 and twice chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of the Republican conference.
Two months does not make a presidency or define a Congress. But unless the current trajectory is reversed, the Trump administration faces a difficult midterm that could undo its agenda and put House gavels and subpoena power in Democratic hands.
It is no exaggeration to say that the 2018 midterm campaign has already begun, with disruptive town hall meetings, party advertising and aggressive fundraising all underway. Democratic candidate-recruiting efforts are in high gear, and two upcoming special House elections in districts President Trump won, in Georgia and Montana, will see millions of dollars spent by both sides in efforts to create the narrative and momentum for next year’s contests.
The collapse of House Republicans’ push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act not only exposes the long-standing fissures in the House GOP caucus but also emboldens Democrats to avoid any participation in legislative deliberations. It recalls the old adage: “If your opponents are committing suicide, don’t stand in their way.”
Midterm elections are relatively low-turnout affairs, and history shows that angry voters tend to dominate that turnout model. That is what happened in 2006 for Democrats and 2010 for Republicans. Right now, Democratic voters feel angry and aggrieved while Republicans are divided and dispirited. Republicans have proved they can be a potent opposition party but have, so far, failed in graduating to a governance party. Moreover, legislative stalemate will give the Democrats the ability to present themselves as the party of change, with a wider appeal to independent voters.
The collapse of the Republican health-care bill was a massive case of legislative malpractice. But playing the blame game and pointing fingers do little to advance the ball. The Republican conference has no Plan B. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) is the only member with the legislative gravitas and fundraising base to lead such a diverse group. The caucus should use this failure as a teachable moment. The American Health Care Act faced united opposition from such disparate groups as the American Medical Association, AARP, the American Hospital Association and the insurance industry, as well as the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth. Republican leaders badly lost the messaging war on a bill few had read and the public didn’t understand. The predictable Congressional Budget Office score didn’t help matters.
What is ironic about this situation is that the bill was never going to become law. It was merely the first step in a legislative process that may well have yielded a more popular measure. But as a branding exercise for Republicans, it was a disaster. Note that midterm elections now operate more in the parliamentary model, where voters opt for or against the party in power and where individual legislative votes matter less. Case in point: Half of the Democrats who ran in competitive districts in 2010 and had voted against the Affordable Care Act lost their reelections anyway, as their candidacies were viewed by voters as a chance to send a message for or against President Barack Obama.
With Trump’s approval numbers in the dangerously low 40 percent range and a restless Republican base, the GOP faces a treacherous path. Leaders must choose their next steps carefully. Tax reform, or even tax cuts, could be even more difficult to accomplish than health care in terms of pitting deficit hawks and special interests against any reform.
Infrastructure plans also require money that could otherwise be used to help finance tax reductions, although this area offers some opportunity for immediate job creation and Democratic support to offset intraparty GOP divisions.
Even such basic moves as passing spending measures to cover the remainder of this fiscal year and lifting the debt ceiling will require Democratic votes — and whatever Democrats agree to is unlikely to be acceptable to large swaths of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
My advice to the House GOP is: Get your act together or face losing the majority. There is time to recover from a difficult start. This will entail compromise and, in some cases, working with Democrats to get half a loaf. But your fumbling of health care puts you in a weakened bargaining position, and your internecine fighting dispirits the party base. As James Bond’s nemesis liked to say , “Choose your next move carefully, Mr. Bond. It may be your last.”
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