Off to the Races

Bad News for GOP: Trump Isn’t Changing

The president has had little success in six months, and there’s scant reason to believe things will get better for him or his party.

President Donald Trump talks with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly after he was privately sworn in during a ceremony in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump, Monday, July 31, 2017, in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 31, 2017, 8 p.m.

Not quite 50 years ago, one of the last of the Big Band crooners, Peggy Lee, recorded a hit song, “Is That All There Is?” That, no doubt, captures the discouraged sentiment of a lot of Republicans these days.

I thought of the 1969 song (I was in high school at the time it came out) recently after asking a senior Republican House member whether President Trump was likely to change. His rather melancholy response: “No, probably not.” That’s the general sentiment of most Republicans in Washington 192 days into this administration. Trump is what he is, and at 71, isn’t likely to change much. Some have said that Trump thrives on chaos around him, but if this is thriving, I’d not sure what struggling would look like.

Anthony Scaramucci’s departure as White House communications director is a promising start, and if anyone could restore order in this calamitous White House, I suppose it might be a retired four-star Marine general. But since the chaos really emanates from the top, it’s rather dubious that the newly minted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly can pull this off.

Going into Election Day last November—and really dating back at least a month earlier to the Washington Post release of the recordings of Trump’s vulgar conversation with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush — most Republicans had pretty much given up on the idea of capturing the White House. The unexpected GOP victory no doubt raised some hopes that Trump might pull off some surprising wins as president, too. But as he heads into August with no major legislative victories and job-approval ratings lower than any other president at this stage of their first term in office, Republicans now have to wonder whether it is realistic to expect things to get much better.

Republicans argue with great hope and some with conviction that Trump’s unique brand is distinct from the Republican Party’s brand, that they will persevere to try to build a legislative record apart from the president’s that can help inoculate enough GOP House members to maintain their majority in that chamber. It’s probably a bit greater than 50-50 odds that they retain control of the House, but it’s likely to be a very, very narrow majority even if they succeed. The situation in the Senate is very different, as the political map is kinder to the GOP this time. Democrats have to defend 10 seats in states that Trump won last November, five of which he won by 19 points or more, compared to a lone GOP seat in a Hillary Clinton state (Dean Heller in Nevada) and perhaps one more (Jeff Flake in Arizona) where Democrats might have a plausible shot.

The calendar is less generous for Republicans in the governorships, where they have 27 seats up this year and next, to only 10 seats for Democrats; in the more-volatile open seats, the GOP has 14 to just five for Democrats. With 48 out of 50 states having four-year gubernatorial terms, those 38 governorships elected this year and next will be the ones in place in 2021 when the next round of congressional and state legislative redistricting occurs. It will be a test for Republicans who scored key victories in the 2010 midterm election under President Obama, setting the GOP up for important gubernatorial and state legislative gains just in time for the last redistricting, helping seal dominance for their party for the better part of a decade.

Given that midterm elections are pretty much a referendum on the incumbent president, Trump’s average Gallup job-approval rating to date of 40 percent is very disconcerting, especially when you consider that really bad things have happened to the party holding the White House when the president has a job-approval rating below 50 percent. (The average Gallup job-approval rating for a new president in his second quarter in office is 62 percent). In midterm elections where the president had a sub-50 percent approval rating in the past half-century:

  • a 49 percent approval for President Johnson at the time of the 1966 elections resulted in a 47-seat House loss;
  • a 47 percent approval for President Ford in 1974 was accompanied by a 48-seat loss;
  • a 43 percent approval rating for President Reagan in 1982 came with a 26-seat loss;
  • a 46 percent approval rating in 1994 for President Clinton fueled a 52-seat loss;
  • a 39 percent approval rating for President George W. Bush in 2006 resulted in a 30-seat loss;
  • a 45 percent approval rating in 2010 for President Obama led to a 63-seat loss.

The only exception to this pattern was that Democrats only lost 13 seats in 2014 when Obama’s approval was just 42 percent—but after their 2010 drubbing and just an 8-seat pickup in 2012, Democrats didn’t really have many competitive seats to lose in 2014. Thus the 2014 midterm election was the only sub-50 percent midterm election in the past half-century that did not result in House losses sufficient to upturn the current GOP majority.

Republicans have to keep their losses to 23 or fewer seats next year to hold the majority. They may have to be content with whatever the administration can do through non-legislative means, as a badly splintered GOP and a legislatively ineffectual president seems to all but rule out a whole lot of success on Capitol Hill.

Which brings us back to the refrain of the Peggy Lee song,

“Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”

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