More Americans disapprove than approve of President Trump’s job performance. His White House is in a perpetual state of turmoil. Fellow Republicans control Congress, but no signature legislation has passed. And in ruby-red Kansas last week, the Republican candidate in a special election got a scare from a turbocharged Democratic base, winning a House seat by a far slimmer margin than expected.
For a Republican Party already starting to strategize ahead of next year’s midterm elections, the turbulent, inchoate environment as the Trump presidency nears its 100th-day mark could be a cause for concern or even alarm.
Yet party leaders and strategists are preaching patience, not panic.
These Republicans — who acknowledge that their political brand will be shaped by the 45th president as long as he holds office — say their political fortunes will be told over the next year and a half in the answers to two overriding questions: Does Trump project strength? And does he achieve progress that amounts to more jobs and higher wages?
“What matters is a record of accomplishment,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has been conducting focus groups of Trump supporters. “People can disagree over the details or the significance of the change, but if you have a record of accomplishment, that fixes everything. . . . If you don’t, no rhetoric will fix it.”
That view contrasts sharply with the conservative ideological projects inspired by some past Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and is part of an emerging recognition for the Grand Old Party that doctrines may not drive voters as much as selling changes Trump has made.
Though Trump’s first three months in office have seen a flurry of activity, including adding conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he has no major legislative victory. Trump’s push to change the Affordable Care Act — the health-care law Republicans have derided as Obamacare and campaigned to repeal and replace — collapsed in a humiliating defeat for Trump and the GOP leadership.
The president who campaigned on his decades of real estate dealmaking and his vow that nobody could execute more “beautiful” deals in Washington is anxious to achieve, well, deals.
“He’s realizing that the party will hang with him, but there are no guarantees and no easy paths forward,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist. “It’s got to kill them that they have the whole thing — the White House and Congress — and they can’t seem to get it together.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was blunt: “We can’t blame this on Barack Obama. We have to look in the mirror.”
For congressional Republicans, the challenges are not necessarily overcoming a policy divide with Trump, but getting clear direction from the White House about the shape and scope of the agenda for the remainder of the year.
On health care, there is a lingering concern that the conservative House Freedom Caucus remains a conundrum without an answer. On taxes, too, Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are perplexed by a lack of consensus on rates and how to address various deductions. It is not even clear to them who in the Trump administration — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin or National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn — is taking the lead, or whether House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) will eventually be called upon to craft a compromise.
The ability of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to guide Trump on policy is another unknown. With Ryan’s hand burned by the health-care defeat, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has an easy rapport with Trump, is rising as a potential new power broker.
What worries Republican leaders is the potent Trump resistance movement activated on the left. Consider last week’s results in Kansas. Trump carried the 4th Congressional District last fall by 27 percentage points, yet Republican Ron Estes won the special election for the open House seat by just seven percentage points over Democrat James Thompson, who was buoyed by a surge in his party’s turnout.
Another special election this Tuesday presents a second test, this time in a suburban Atlanta district that is expected to be more competitive for Democrats than the one in Kansas.
“Their base is whipped up and going,” Cole said of the Democrats. “Nothing we can do is going to change that. So you better have your own base equally charged up, and to do that you have to convince them that you’re getting things done — that the fact that they gave you the Senate, the House and the White House means something.”
In his quest for legislative wins on such issues as tax reform and infrastructure spending, Trump is signaling a desire to broker with Democrats, although outreach has been scattered and no bipartisan alliance has emerged.
In the past week alone, Trump reversed several positions in conflict with his campaign promises. He said that he now supports NATO and the Export-Import Bank, and that he no longer believes China is manipulating its currency.
Trump’s new stances reflect the rising influence of a bloc of business-friendly, global-oriented advisers at the expense of Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist and champion of Trump’s nationalist ideas and pugilistic tactics. The shifts have fueled the perception that the president is evolving into a more traditional Republican.
“The question is: Will he continue to engage his populism and his outsider status?” asked Patrick J. Caddell, a political consultant and Bannon friend. “What is his organizing principle? It has long been overthrowing and changing the system, protecting people and taking on institutions. If he abandons those kinds of ideas, then what is he all about?”
Strategists who are counseling Republican leaders and candidates in the 2018 midterms said most voters may not care, for instance, whether Trump labels China a currency manipulator. What matters, they said, is whether the Republicans in charge can work together to get results.
“People were voting for change,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster. “It doesn’t have to be everything all the time, but there has to be a sense of forward progress. They’re looking for two basic outcomes: more jobs and higher wages. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Austin Barbour, a Republican strategist based in Mississippi, said, “Trump voters see him not for the policy stances that he takes. It has to be a really big single issue to get their attention. Most of them think, he’s not Barack Obama and he’s a straight shooter who will always say what’s on his mind and he says he’ll make the country a better place.”
Trump’s first three months in office have not been without action. He has signed a slew of executive orders. His Cabinet is working to loosen regulations throughout the bureaucracy. He has pressured business leaders and sought to take credit for thousands of new manufacturing jobs, although most were already in the works.
Trump also has reimagined America’s posture in the world. He has won accolades from many Republicans and some Democrats for a bombing strike in Syria, dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Islamic State forces in Afghanistan, toughening his administration’s approach to Russia and cultivating a rapport with the leaders of China and Japan amid rising tensions with North Korea.
Some Trump allies say he must stay true to his promise of wholesale change to maintain his political currency.
“They’re in power because people reacted to the options that were presented and went with the party that seemed to be more like change,” Caddell said. “There is no deep support for the GOP. They remain an unpopular party, and people are very dissatisfied, which is why Trump is sitting in the White House. If the Republicans don’t recognize that, our politics will move on from them.”