What Britain’s election says about Trump’s GOP

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 24 – This week:

  • What the UK election might mean for the GOP
  • Comey’s testimony a double-edged sword
  • Ossoff closing strong in Georgia, to Republicans’ dismay

Trump coalition: The UK Conservative Party’s disappointing election result last week might not seem at all related to American politics. But in fact, it is a lot more relevant than you might think. Bear with us for a moment as we explain why.

First, think back to the British elections of 2015. They were widely expected to produce a “hung parliament” — a situation where no party is strong enough to build a governing coalition in parliament. But that’s not how it ended up happening.

Instead, the 2015 election saw the UK Independence Party or UKIP — the party advocating for British exit from the European Union — had a strong nationwide showing that surprisingly and in key places came mostly at the expense of the center-left Labour Party.

One might have expected — and many did — that a party like UKIP would gobble up Conservative votes. It might have in some cases, but where it counted UKIP gobbled up the votes of working-class Britons in England. (Labour also suffered from the Scottish nationalists crushing them throughout Scotland, but there’s no analogy between that and the current situation on this side of the pond.)

In retrospect, and mutatis mutandis, that 2015 election demonstrated that something resembling Trumpism resided among center-left parties’ voters. UKIP performed far better than expected in many Labour strongholds, but failed to win seats. Instead, it made Labour seats more competitive for the Conservatives, who in many cases came out on top.

Fast-forward to 2017. The so-called “Brexit” question has already been put to bed, making UKIP a victim of its own success. Its vote share plummeted throughout Britain, and it won no seats at all in Parliament. This did not come as a surprise.

But the Conservative election plan — to gobble up all of the newly politically conscious UKIP voters — failed abysmally. In critical places all over England and Wales, those voters went back to Labour, whose message in this election under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was considerably more left-leaning and populist than it had been in 2015. The working class was satisfied that Brexit was over, and reverted to their prior voting habits.

As a result, the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority. They must now rely on a small regional party from Northern Ireland to survive a no-confidence vote.

So, how does this have anything to do with U.S. politics? Here’s how: It offers a vision of one possible future of the Trump coalition — a future where it breaks up and returns Democrats to power.

We have been writing for three solid years about how the Democratic Party faced a bleak future after Obama — a future with lower black voter turnout and less loyalty from young and non-white voters, and also no strong party candidates for president. And this theme has proven to be the unsung anthem of that period. But the British elections put a similar question to the Republicans. Yes, they have a coalition, but how stable is it?

In his 2016 election, President Trump assembled what seemed like a very unlikely coalition of the typical Middle Class Republican voter and the Working Class Democratic voter. It was exactly what Trump promised to do, but no one believed he could do it until the moment it happened. Downscale and economically neglected areas in states all over America — but especially in the region stretching around the Great Lakes from the Upper Midwest to Northern Maine — flipped from Obama to Trump.

That was good news for Republicans in 2016, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change they can bank on, the way they often seem to think when they discuss the white working-class voter. Just as conservatives were wrong to believe that UKIP voters had somehow come rightward, so might Republicans be wrong to assume that they can keep Trump’s coalition together after, for example, he does something about NAFTA that takes the edge off their interest in the GOP.

Another way of putting this: If Republicans don’t take Trump’s message for the economically downtrodden seriously and figure out how it worked and what policies can keep it relevant, then the voters who embraced Trump’s right-leaning populism could easily turn around and go back to voting for the same left-wing populism they supported for generations.

This is not guaranteed, obviously, and we present no proof here that it will happen. But it is one possible future that Republicans need to take seriously and, if possible, avoid. Because it’s the future we just saw happen in the UK, much to the detriment of the conservative cause there..

Comey testimony: Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony last week was a double- edged sword.

Team Trump has decided that attacking Comey personally is the way to defuse the controversy. This seems doubtful.

Comey’s testimony actually dispelled some negative rumors about Trump. It probably knocked down most of the basis for any belief that there’s evidence out there of direct collusion between him and the Russian government to affect the 2016 election outcome. It also vindicated his claim that he was not under investigation at the time Comey was fired, as well as his claim that Comey had told him as much on three occasions.

It did not leave the impression that Trump had tried to squelch the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Plus, for any doubters, Comey made clear that he had always operated on the understanding that he could be fired at any time for any reason by the president.

That all seems like enough of a win for Trump that he could have just run with what was said and be satisfied. So why stage a propaganda campaign against Comey, including paid advertising, suggesting that he is untrustworthy or just a political animal?

The problem is that Comey testified to more than just the above. The part that Democrats are especially latching on to is his claim that Trump had specifically tried to get him to leave former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn alone after his firing from the administration. This could just be a case of Trump showing his loyalty and also his lack of understanding of what’s proper to ask of an FBI director. Or it could be obstruction of justice.

But here’s the thing: Even if there’s a new, less grandiose case for Trump malfeasance now, the bigger and more robust case that called the election’s legitimacy into question is already dead. Trump was peeved that the FBI director was unwilling to vindicate him in public as he had done in private, instead leaving a cloud over his head as he tried to do his new and very challenging job. This might be understandable.

Was he out of line in some of his requests? Perhaps, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller will take up that question. But those hoping for an impeachment-worthy offense to surface soon are now forced to abandon what they had been hoping for up to now, and to embrace a new set of facts inconsistent with their optimistic expectations.

The result is that everyone loses. Trump, in aggressively going after Comey, knocks down a man who is nearly vouching for him; and his critics, in hyping Comey, have seen their anti-Trump expectations deflated.

House 2017

Georgia-6: Republican Karen Handel’s inability to break away from Democrat Jon Ossoff — or even to demonstrate a lead of any kind, for that matter — is a troubling sign for Republicans.

The district, which went heavily for Mitt Romney in 2012, had never provided them with any trouble before this year. But the most expensive House race in history appears to be shifting in Democrats’ favor, and the clock is running short.

A win for Ossoff would give Democrats points on the board and a big victory to rally around. It would also come as the first clear indication of the trouble Republicans face in an unusually hostile political environment that Republicans. Election Day is June 20.

Governor 2018

Colorado: It might be a bit odd that left-wing Rep. Jared Polis, D, is suddenly running for governor. On at least one level, though, it’s easy to understand.

Polis, who is very wealthy, ran up against Democratic opposition while trying to fund and promote environmental ballot measures in Colorado against fracking. Democrats such as Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to keep the issue off the ballot lest Democrats suffer from it, and Polis somehow felt obligated to defer to them.

How do you seize control of your party’s message on the issues? Can you think of a better way than to run for governor and win?

Kansas: Secretary of State Kris Kobach, R, who is known primarily on the national level for his hard-line on immigration and his involvement in developing a controversial Arizona immigration law, has declared his candidacy for governor. He will be running in a very tough environment for Republicans, given term-limited Gov. Sam Brownback’s deep unpopularity.

Brownback’s tax reductions have just been repealed, with his veto overridden by the legislature. The local political situation probably gave Democrats a leg up in their unsuccessful yet vigorous challenge for the Fourth District House seat in mid-April.

Recall, on the other hand, that in 2014 the national left-wing media clamored for Kobach’s defeat. They hyped his opponents in the primary and general to an embarrassing degree, only to watch Kobach win his primary by 30 point and his general election by 20.