Two congressional special elections in as many weeks make clear that while the Republican Party is not in a free fall, things are not copacetic, either. Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes won last week’s special election in Kansas’s 4th District to fill the vacancy created by Mike Pompeo’s nomination to head the CIA, but his 5-point victory was far short of the margins posted by Pompeo (31 points) and Donald Trump (27) last year, and Mitt Romney (26) in 2012.
Earlier this week, Republicans managed to prevent 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff from winning Georgia’s 6th District special election for the seat left open when Tom Price became secretary of Health and Human Services. In what should have been a cakewalk for the GOP, Ossoff fell less than 2 points short of the 50 percent tally that would have sent him to Washington. Republican congressional, gubernatorial, and senatorial candidates have in recent years won the district by large double-digit margins. The outcome of the June 20 runoff now becomes important.
These results are frustrating to people who like their politics simple, as many ideologues and partisans tend to. The elections can be interpreted in either of two ways, depending on your disposition: Perhaps the Republican train is going horribly off the tracks, or it’s chugging along just fine. The answer depends on future events.
Will Trump and the congressional Republicans continue to act in a way that infuriates the Democratic base, and keeps it highly motivated and chomping to get to the polls in special elections and in next year’s midterms?
Another factor is a perception of competence. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the policies of Trump and congressional Republicans, it may matter more whether they seem to know what they’re doing and going about it in a professional way. A government shutdown would likely not enhance the public’s perception of Republican competence in Washington.
Presidential transitions are inherently bumpy, some more than others. Obviously the easiest transition is when an incumbent president is reelected—some aides from the original team leave, others are moved around, and some new people are added. Next easiest is when a sitting vice president or someone else in the previous administration takes over. A little bumpier is when the new president is from the same party but hasn’t been a part of the previous administration.
A transition is far more difficult when an insider from the opposite party becomes president and triggers a wholesale change in direction and personnel. But the greatest turbulence occurs when an outsider from the opposition party takes over, causing dramatic changes in direction, agenda, personnel, and style. The changeover from Democratic President Obama to Republican Trump, who had never worked in government—elected or appointed, civilian or military—is the most far-reaching change imaginable. This should not come as a shock. Voters knowingly chose jolting change.
As this column argued earlier this week, Trump’s knowledge and understanding of policy and process has doubled or tripled every 30 days since he took office, from a standing start. As he has begun to master his brief, White House policies have begun to revert to the mean, becoming more or less what another Republican president might have done and, in some cases, not too different from what Obama might have done. Trump has found that this governing stuff is a lot more complicated than it looked when he watched cable news every night.
Having a new team with a lot of people who have never served in government inevitably makes the initial ride more bumpy, and that is certainly the case here. A baseball team early in spring training looks far less proficient than it will look in the second half of the season or in the playoffs. The fact that a lot of positions in this administration have not yet been filled further erodes its ability to govern in a competent way.
As we get deeper into the year, it matters a great deal whether a new president gets things done smoothly or still operates in a Keystone Kops sort of way.
Finally, does the Republican base see Trump and congressional Republicans trying to do what they were elected to do, even if they go about things in a clumsy manner? Most people understand that circumstances change, but the base needs to believe that its party’s values have remained the same even if circumstances force different outcomes.
The midterms are shaping up as a bifurcated election. Republicans are playing defense in the House, trying to hold on to a majority that now seems more precarious than originally thought. But in the Senate, where Republicans have a 52-48 majority, it is Democrats who are playing defense. Democrats are paying the price for having fantastic elections in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s second term, when the midterm elections were heavily affected by the increasingly unpopular Iraq War, and in 2012, when Obama was reelected. Democrats are defending 25 seats, including 10 in states Trump carried, five by 19 points or more, while Republicans are defending nine seats, only one of which went for Hillary Clinton last year.
The course for the midterms is still to be determined. How things go over the next six months will determine how many lawmakers retire, who steps up to run for open seats, and the quality of the candidates who challenge incumbents. A party that is perceived as having the wind at its back tends to have fewer retirements and better recruiting than one facing headwinds. In short, the 2018 midterm-election book is still in its early chapters.
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As the Russia investigation heats up, "the role of Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s longtime New York lawyer, will be significantly reduced. Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. The veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd will take the lead in representing Mr. Trump for the Russia inquiry."
President Trump's attorneys are "actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work." They plan to argued that Mueller is going outside the scope of his investigation, in inquiring into Trump's finances. They're also playing small ball, highlighting "donations to Democrats by some of" Mueller's team, and "an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011." Trump is said to be incensed that Mueller may see his tax returns, and has been asking about his power to pardon his family members.
In addition to ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Robert Mueller's team is also "examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said. The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort."
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is "is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates", including "Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008."
"A Senate bill to gut Obamacare would increase the number of uninsured people by 32 million and double premiums on Obamacare's exchanges by 2026, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The analysis is of a bill that passed Congress in 2015 that would repeal Obamacare's taxes and some of the mandates. Republicans intend to leave Obamacare in place for two years while a replacement is crafted and implemented."