There seems little question that President Trump has enjoyed his September dalliance with the two top Democratic leaders in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Aside from the Supreme Court confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, which isn’t technically legislation, this is the only significant legislative victory the president has had this year.
But the long-term wisdom of this relationship remains to be seen. When the chips are down, are Chuck and Nancy likely to stay by his side? Who will he need? The answer is more likely to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, even if he seems to dislike the former and has little chemistry with the latter. The president’s surprising coziness with Schumer and Pelosi was an alliance of convenience: It suited both parties to move quickly to set a debt limit, keep the government funded, and approve disaster relief. Sure, it would have been better to get an 18-month debt-limit increase (instead of three months) and fund the government for a full year (instead of through December), but Trump needed to get something done and wasn’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That said, cutting off his own party’s congressional leaders without warning is apt to cause Trump grief down the road.
The deal with Schumer and Pelosi adds to the damage to the GOP brand that was already occurring with Trump’s disparagement of congressional Republicans and their leadership, which has driven a wedge between the Trump base and the rest of the GOP Congress.
Recall that in 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president, he attracted young and minority voters as well as others who were drawn to his personality and message. Obama Democrats gained 21 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. But two years later, Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot, his voters didn’t go to the polls, and Democrats lost 63 seats in the House (and their majority) and six in the Senate. In the 2012 election, with Obama again at the top of the ticket, he was reelected by a slightly wider margin than expected and his party gained eight House and two Senate seats. But in 2014, his voters again didn’t show up for the midterms, and Democrats lost 13 House seats and, more importantly, nine Senate seats and control of that chamber. As Democratic pollster Fred Yang put it, “they didn’t call them Obama voters for nothing.”
There is no question that Trump appeals to different social and economic constituencies than Republicans normally do, notably downscale whites. By trashing congressional Republicans and their leaders, people he needs to get reelected a little over 13 months from now, he is undercutting his own ability to get his base to vote for those Republicans.
So who loses if a slice of Trump supporters behave like Obama voters and stay home anytime their guy’s name isn’t on the ballot? Well, let’s start with the House. I think it’s pretty close to an even-money bet whether Republicans retain their majority. Life will get harder for Trump if he loses 23 or fewer seats, and it will get really hard if he loses 24 or more—which would normally happen to the party of a president with a sub-50 percent approval rating (currently 37 percent with little fluctuation). In that event, Democrats would gain control of the House and have the power to subpoena White House aides, department and agency officials, campaign operatives, and Trump Organization executives. And Trump thinks things are tough now?
A Senate loss would be even tougher. The GOP can afford to lose only two seats, and even then, on party-line votes, Vice President Mike Pence would be needed to break 50-50 ties. By trashing GOP Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, making them vulnerable in their primaries to far less electable opponents, or hurting them so badly that their general-election hopes are diminished, Trump is flirting with a 50-50 Senate, unless Republicans can knock off some Democrats elsewhere, which looks a little less promising now than it did a few weeks ago. If anything goes awry with the seven other GOP incumbents, Trump can probably kiss his Senate majority goodbye. Then he’ll not only be fending off subpoenas but also giving his veto pen a major workout. And we haven’t even uttered the word impeachment, which becomes imaginable if Republicans lose their control of both chambers. Will GOP lawmakers stand loyally by his side given the shabby way he’s treated them?
What we are seeing is another example of Trump following his instincts and emotions, acting tactically rather than strategically. I am reminded of the chorus of the great song first recorded in 1960 by The Shirelles and later by Carole King: “Will you still love me tomorrow?” The answer for Trump is certainly no for Chuck and Nancy. For Mitch and Paul, it’s getting more doubtful every day.