Burning the Ships

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 31 – This week:

  • Trump is making the GOP his own
  • Republican failure on healthcare
  • August GOP primary in Alabama

White House: The sudden ouster of Reince Priebus as President Trump’s chief of staff surely has many Trump fans cheering. Another member of the Republican establishment bites the dust, right?

But this event, combined with Trump’s estrangement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Priebus’ replacement by someone of a military and not a political background, puts Trump into what many conservatives might consider a dangerously apolitical moment.

Trump’s link to the institutional Republican Party as it existed before his rise now consists entirely of his relationship with the current congressional leadership — a leadership that has been somewhat discredited by its failure to pass a reconciliation bill to repeal part of Obamacare. Even Trump’s relationship with Sessions, a traditional conservative who embraced Trump, is now in tatters.

In one sense, these two developments further solidify Trump’s control of the GOP. He is, one could argue, burning the ships that brought him to this new world. But this also means he is cut off from the traditional interests of all wings of the party. The voices in Trump’s ear that had kept him on a more predictably Republican path are now either gone or ignored.

To date, Trump’s actions in office — notably including but not limited to his judicial appointments — have generally pleased conservatives. How much of that is Trump’s gut instinct, and how much of it has been his attachment to various figures such as Priebus, Sessions, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and others whose positions in his inner circle have proven to be less than stable? Trump may well demonstrate in coming months that he can do it all on his own and keep the GOP base — in other words, that the old GOP doesn’t matter any more.

But the removal of his connections to the old Republican Party puts him in a position to do whatever he likes in molding its current incarnation. It could turn out very well for conservatives, or very badly.

Obamacare repeal: Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare, or even to pass a non-repeal bill that at least looks a bit like repeal, is no laughing matter for the party as it heads toward the 2018 midterms.

Fingers are being pointed at John McCain and Lisa Murkowski for their no votes. They are being pointed at Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan for failing to create a consensus reform package over the last seven years. They are being pointed at President Trump for his general disengagement from the issue. And they’re being pointed otherwise in every direction you can imagine.

But the real question is whether this is simply one failure too many in terms of Republican promises. Is this the great failure that really motivates Republican base voters to stay home on election day, or at least removes any rationale for turning out?

Legislative failures and embarrassments at this point in an election cycle don’t necessarily capture voters’ interest or attention span. The government shutdown of 2013 was completely forgotten by the time of the 2014 election thanks to intervening events. No Republican was punished on any side of the intraparty feud that it generated.

And of course, the conventional wisdom of July 2015 — that Donald Trump could never win the GOP nomination, let alone the presidency — was in tatters just 16 months later. It’s a reminder of how little one can know at this point.

Still, Republicans had been promising to repeal Obamacare for seven years. Last week, they demonstrated that too few of them were committed to this goal to get the job done, even in a token sense of the idea. Six of the seven Republicans who voted against a clean repeal of Obamacare had previously voted for exactly the same thing. At what point do Republican voters simply conclude that they’ve been strung along by false promises?

Senate 2017

Alabama: With primary day coming up on August 15 for this special election, the Senate’s failure on healthcare reform could not have come at a worse moment for Sen. Luther Strange. Strange is already somewhat controversial, having been appointed to his post by a former governor whom he had previously been investigating for misconduct in office.

If there’s any real backlash among the most devoted GOP primary voters over the failure to repeal Obamacare, then this is the race where you should expect to see it show its face. The danger, still only potential, is that there will be a backfire to the Senate GOP leadership’s unusual decision to back Strange as if he were an elected incumbent, even going so far as to threaten those backing his opponents.

Strange faces two strong challengers, the ever-controversial former Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks. Brooks is trying to run as a traditional anti-establishment conservative candidate, more in the mold of Ted Cruz than Donald Trump. Moore, however, whose reputation as the “Ten Commandments Judge” precedes him, might represent a flavor of conservatism that more resembles Trump in his absolute commitment to burning down the party establishment.

Moore is suspicious to many mainstream conservatives not because of his religious background, but because he is viewed as an ally of the state’s trial lawyers. Having recognized the futility of supporting Democrats in Alabama, trial lawyers have put their money behind Moore in two separate elections.

Moore has far more name recognition, and at least based on that he is probably the more imminent threat to Strange. But all three candidates will probably be competitive in a race where a weak incumbent has just the slightest advantage.

Governor 2018

Kansas: The appointment of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback as President Trump’s new at-large ambassador for religious freedom is probably a godsend for the state GOP. Rightly or wrongly, Brownback had reached such depths of unpopularity that he might have weighed down any Republican in the 2018 race.

Now Brownback’s lieutenant governor, Jeff Colyer, will have more than a year for a fresh start and to build up his own name recognition to help him in next year’s GOP primary. But more importantly, even if he ultimately loses that primary, he will have some time to put Brownback’s legacy behind the entire state party.

Maryland: The decision by Democratic Rep. John Delaney to retire from Congress and forgo a bid for governor in order to explore running for president is….well, kind of weird, frankly. The idea that the wealthy former banker should run for president isn’t exactly going to set the Democratic world on fire.

But immediately, it has a big impact on his state’s governor’s race. His choice not to run for governor is definitely a bullet dodged for the popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Although Hogan’s re-election can never be guaranteed in a state like Maryland (especially in a midterm with a Republican president), Delaney would have brought with him to the race massive resources and at least some part of a swingy constituency in western Maryland. Hogan’s job looks ever so slightly safer today than it did last week.