Though electoral history suggests the GOP is in for a reckoning, there are ways Team Trump can limit the damage
The forecast for November 6, 2018 is a Democratic tsunami.
Trump’s abysmally low approval numbers (currently in the high 30s), the recent special election results (most notably in Virginia and Alabama), and electoral history more generally (see chart below) all spell doom for the GOP this fall.
Or do they?
Actually, a good case can be made for the irrelevance of the first two factors. Trump, you’ll remember, had the same favorables right before the 2016 election, and we all know what happened next. The fact that the President won’t be on the ballot in 2018 doesn’t matter; he’ll be the most consequential political element in each and every close race.
When it comes to the special elections we’ve already had, each contains an idiosyncratic feature that might keep us from seeing it as representative of the upcoming midterm contests. Here are two examples: in Alabama, the discovery of Roy Moore’s reprehensible sexual past led to nearly 23,000 voters casting a write-in vote, a number larger than Doug Jones’ margin of victory; and in the race for Kansas’ fourth district House seat, Republicans suffered a 20-point drop from November 2016 to April 2017 partly due to the unpopularity of Governor Sam Brownback, whose supply-side experiment was widely seen as catastrophic for the state.
With that said, even if Trump’s approval ratings and the recent special election results don’t end up mattering, the third factor, a historical record overwhelmingly pointing to the sitting president’s party suffering significant midterm losses, will be hard to overcome.
A net loss in the House is unavoidable, but there’s a huge difference between suffering a net loss and giving up control of the chamber. For example, a 23-seat loss preserves Republican control; a 24-seat loss puts the Democrats in power. In the Senate, the Democrats merely have to pick up two seats, though that’s complicated by the fact that the makeup of the contests is structurally favorable to Republicans.
If a storm is indeed threatening the President’s party, a storm powerful enough to transfer power over to the Democrats, is there anything Trump can do to change the weather?
Here are 10 things he can do, in no particular order.
1. Incessantly Tout Our Strong Economy
Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign gave us a bevy of memorable moments, perhaps none more culturally significant than James Carville’s strategy directive: “it’s the economy, stupid.”
While it’s certainly true that the political dynamics have changed in the past 25 years—indeed, Carville’s emphasis on the economy made excellent sense as a strategy to use against a president plagued by a recession—a timeless rule remains forever in play: any political figure, party, or administration who can plausibly take credit for a strong economy should do so.
When I say “plausibly,” I don’t have economists in mind but voters. Economists generally maintain that presidents have less impact on the economy than is popularly believed, and they’ll see in the growth of other markets, such as in E.U. countries and Japan, a reason to doubt that our own economic growth is due to Trump. But those aren’t arguments voters will see and hear.
Voters will hear of record-breaking stock market highs, the lowest unemployment rate in decades, exuberant business investment and job creation numbers, and more.
Consider this report from Breitbart:
A wave of optimism has swept over American business leaders, and it is beginning to translate into the sort of investment in new plants, equipment and factory upgrades that bolsters economic growth, spurs job creation — and may finally raise wages significantly.
While business leaders are eager for the tax cuts that take effect this year, the newfound confidence was initially inspired by the Trump administration’s regulatory pullback, not so much because deregulation is saving companies money but because the administration has instilled a faith in business executives that new regulations are not coming.
Then again, we expect Breitbart to effusively praise Trump. Can we really trust their assessment of Trump’s impact on the economy? Oops. The above excerpt is actually from the New York Times.
A Gallup poll conducted a year after Trump’s election to the presidency shows that voters rate his effect on the economy higher than any other issue. In fact, his handling of the economy runs eight points higher than his overall job approval.
2. Pass A Massive Infrastructure Bill
Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, just reconfirmed what we’ve known for a while: the administration will be unveiling a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan later this month.
If the design of the plan roughly corresponds to Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney’s outline last year, which called for a “5 to 1 leverage ratio,” the federal government will spend $200 billion and private spending will pay for the rest of the trillion-plus proposal.
Despite attempts at rhetorical distancing, Democrats will not allow themselves—politically or philosophically—to obstruct Republican spending initiatives. Enough of them will find grounds for seeing this as a win for their districts, for their home states. Since Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate, there is no way the final plan goes unmodified, but so long as it remains sufficiently business friendly, Trump should have no trouble chalking this up as a win.
What happens if the Democrats convince themselves that helping Trump score another legislative win will harm their chances in November? It could subvert their own chances at retaking Congress, since it would gift the GOP a powerful new narrative. Whereas Republicans are pursuing initiatives traditionally favored by Democrats, and spending in ways Democrats should want to support, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are out there playing politics. It would not be hard to paint their refusal to come to the table on infrastructure as a casualty of their political ambitions.
3. Focus Messaging on Tax Reform Benefits
The first three moves form a connected triad: (1) presiding over a booming economy; (2) improving American infrastructure; and (3) giving money back to most Americans.
Here is how they come together. If Republicans are smart enough to inject tax cuts into their talking points at every opportunity, it will provoke two main responses: (a) the rich are the biggest beneficiaries and (b) tax cuts will inevitably reduce spending.
These counterarguments are far superior to the ones the Washington Post’s David Weigel found when he first previewed what Democratic criticisms might look like once Americans get their tax returns. But although (a) and (b), above, are more formidable arguments, they too can be effectively parried away by the aforementioned factors: a strong economy and increased federal spending on infrastructure and other sectors such as defense.
In other words, against the charges that the GOP enacted a #taxscam and that they’re trying to cut spending, Republicans will be able to counter that if their bill is such a scam, why is the economy doing so well? And if they’re so intent on cutting spending, why is a Republican Congress and a Republican White House pushing massive spending increases?
Save for a few years during the George W. Bush presidency, this is one of the only moments in my lifetime that Republicans are able to legitimately countermessage Democratic portrayals of the GOP as spendthrifts. Even during the Bush years, a philosophical aversion to spending and a track record of proposing cuts has disinclined Republicans from claiming this as a positive. But in his recent reevaluation of his years as a deficit hawk, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat speaks for a growing number of conservatives when he abandons his formerly-held reflexive aversion to spending.
This is a strange moment in which Republicans might find it politically advantageous to own their spending. The emphasis should be on smart spending—for example, they’ve pushed for the lifting of automatic spending caps at least as it relates to military expenditures. The public is generally in favor of more military spending, and it will be difficult, in the face of a North Korean threat, Russian expansionism, middle-eastern turmoil, and rising Chinese influence, to argue that caps should remain on military spending. This is one of the only times Republicans can accurately claim they’re spending big, and one of the only moments in recent history that they might want to.
This is the second messaging-based move I’ve prescribed, and it’s not going to be the last. The reason is simple: election years are all about who can “sell” their agenda the best.
With that said, not all messaging is the same. Some exists to promote a narrative. Other forms are explanatory in nature. For example, there is no need to explain to Americans why getting a tax cut is a good deal for them; they’ll sense that on their own. But there is a need to explain why the corporate tax cut is a positive move.
It should not be hard for Republicans to point out that, prior to the tax bill, (a) the U.S. had the highest corporate rate among advanced countries; (b) many left-leaning economists favored a steep cut to the headline corporate rate; and (c) while it’s true the rich keep some of the gains for themselves, it is often in their best interests to reinject that money into the economy in various ways.
4. Play Up Democratic Designs To Increase Taxes Significantly
The flipside of heralding tax cuts is blasting the opposition party for wanting to do away with them.
Bernie Sanders’ Obamacare repeal and replace proposal, which would expand “Medicare for all,” would cost the federal government $20–30 trillion over a decade and lead to massive tax increases. The plan has drawn support from a number of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris.
Republicans should present Americans with a binary choice between a party in favor of tax cuts alongside moderate spending and a party wanting so much spending it will need to significantly raise taxes to achieve it.
The GOP should also avoid resurrecting repeal and replace at all costs. The Democrats will try to peg rising premiums on Republicans, given that the GOP tax bill nullified the individual mandate, but the answer isn’t to have another go at Obamacare; it’s to show how the Democratic Party is itself trending anti-ACA by moving toward single-payer.
5. Shutdown Ryan on Entitlement Reform
I think it’s very likely Democrats gain 24 seats this fall, which means Paul Ryan’s days as Speaker of the House are almost certainly numbered. It’s understandable, then, for Ryan to signal interest in pursuing entitlement reform in 2018. Ryan himself has admitted that cutting Medicaid has been one of his dreams since college. And privatizing Medicare has also been one of his long-running goals.
Yet there are several political complications with this strategy. For one, Ryan has stated he won’t go after the programs Trump wants to leave untouched, which include Medicare and Social Security. But that leaves far less expensive programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), which are associated with economically vulnerable populations Trump will not want to provoke in 2018 and 2020.
Second, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is explicitly looking for bipartisan legislation, and there are exactly zero Democrats who will sign on to welfare cuts. Ryan has suggested the Senate could pursue passing these cuts with only 51 Republican votes—a process known as reconciliation and used last year to pass the tax bill—but that’s not a strategy McConnell wants to use in an election year.
Before Christmas, McConnell told reporters:
The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result.
That’s not happening anytime soon.
6. Pass DACA
Trump has warmed to so-called Dreamers far more than one would expect from an immigration hardliner. The person who kicked off his candidacy for president by calling Mexicans “rapists,” who questioned a Mexican judge’s capacity for impartiality, who enacted various travel bans…also signaled his wish that DACA, which Steve Bannon has called “Obama’s executive amnesty,” would be codified into law by Congress, and for a while even made us believe he had struck a deal with Pelosi and Schumer to do just that.
By passing DACA, Trump can do a number of things. Support for Dreamers is extremely high, which means Trump can forestall the mobilization of a major political force this fall. He can also spin his DACA opposition as a commitment to the Constitution, arguing that his problem with DACA was proceduralist, not substantive, all along. Presidents shouldn’t create laws, he could argue. He only kicked DACA to Congress in order to get it done the right way.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that
a vast 86 percent of Americans support a right to residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, with support crossing the political spectrum…
7. But Require Border Security In Exchange
…but the same poll found that:
Two-thirds back a deal to enact such legislation in tandem with higher funding for border control.
I think it’s extremely unlikely Trump will be able to hold DACA hostage in exchange for funding for his wall. If the Democrats were to comply, they’d be opening themselves up to considerable pushback from their base at a time when enthusiastic turnout is their highest priority.
The solution is to agree to border security funding understood more broadly, which of course doesn’t necessarily require a wall.
One option is to agree to put up money for the sort of border structures that each side can plausibly spin as a victory. For Democrats, that would mean agreeing to fund border structures that fail to count as a “wall,” since of course their main objective is to be able to claim they did not help Trump pay for a “wall.” For Trump, that would mean securing funding for security structures he could claim are better than walls—for example, he could try to claim that a fence-like structure is more cost effective than a full-on wall—and for an increase in personnel to augment our border security.
Axios’ Jonathan Swan is reporting that former chief adviser Steve Bannon has recruited the House Freedom Caucus to demand that Trump only offer to protect DACA if Congress ends family migration (the process whereby green-card holders bring over their immediate family members). As it stands, such a demand is unworkable; there is perhaps a way to get merit-based immigration through the door a la the RAISE Act, but Democrats are under significant pressure to avoid making concessions of this magnitude.
8. Herald the Defeat of ISIS
In early December, Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, declared victory over ISIS.
Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against [ISIS]. Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.
In 2016, the specter of how to deal with ISIS overwhelmingly dominated the foreign policy segments of the presidential primary debates. Yet news of ISIS’ defeat has enjoyed a fraction of the coverage.
You’d expect the GOP to be shouting the fall of ISIS from the rooftops, but this has not happened. How come? Part of the reason is surely due to the embarrassing precedent of claiming victory too early (“Mission Accomplished,” anyone?).
But there is a simple fix. They should use language that leaves open the possibility of future attacks. The strategy should be to make clear the claim is that ISIS’ caliphate aspirations have been dealt a crippling blow, but that the terrorist network will retain certain operational capacities. Otherwise, Trump leaves himself open to easy disconfirmation.
9. Continue to Avoid Red Lines on North Korea
It would be wonderful if Trump were to let his team, which boasts immense collective military experience, dictate his public statements regarding North Korea.
Indeed, every other week there’s a new Trump tweet on North Korea that scares half of Washington to death. I get it—Trump mentioning nuclear weapons, in almost any context, is grounds for serious concern. But I actually think it’s remarkable Trump hasn’t said worse.
As I mentioned in a previous piece,
There will be intense political pressure to project strength by issuing explicit or de facto “red lines.” These could escalate matters needlessly.
Trump is a politician of pride. If a rival talks up his nuclear button, Trump is psychologically compelled to play up his own (far larger!) button.
A recent decision to call off military drills during the upcoming Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea, has paved the way for talks with the North Korean regime. If Trump were to secure nuclear concessions from North Korea, it would be massive. Even if the talks merely lead to a period of detente, Trump could cite it as a huge personal victory. Actually, in a move that will shock no one, he already has!
10. Prioritize Narrow, Focused Tariffs
Trump largely avoided trade issues during his first year as president. These will play a far more prominent role in 2018.
If Trump were to slap tariffs on entire industries, such as steel, he could disrupt the economy in politically disastrous ways. No problem, right? He can just drop this issue and move on to more agreeable initiatives.
Actually, economic nationalism is the closest thing to a core belief Trump possesses. Everything else is open to negotiation, but even as a faux-candidate in the 1980s, Trump railed against the trade practices of other countries the same way he’s done so during the past few years.
Luckily for Trump, there is a way for him to get his tariffs without putting in place the conditions for prices to rise. He can avoid slapping tariffs against entire product categories or industries, and instead erect narrow, targeted ones against strategic offenders.
Again, a crucial arguments Trump has going for him — even if its merits are tenuous at best — is that the economy is humming. A tariff-inflicted economic disruption would potentially cancel that out. Rising prices and stock market losses would be a gift to Democrats at a crucial point in the calendar.
Trump offered Xi Jinping a deal awhile back: get tough on North Korea and Trump would overlook China’s exploitative trade practices. It’s hard to see how Trump comes to the conclusion that China has fulfilled their end. Trump could unleash his director of trade and industrial policy, Peter Navarro, and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, who are both chomping at the bit to go after China on trade.
I am not in favor of many of the above moves, but this is an article about what would be effective, not about what I’d like to see.
There are other issues, of course. Trump can project toughness with Russia, continue to publicly support Robert Mueller, provoke impeachment talk on the part of Democrats, and more. But I went with the 10, above.
An overarching principle is to avoid making silly mistakes. Letting CHIP expire for no discernible reason is an example of mistakes Trump’s party will need to avoid if they’re going to remain in power after the midterms.
10 Things Trump Can Do To Stem The Coming Democratic Wave was originally published in Arc Digital on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.