Historically, a sitting president with a 39 percent approval rating would represent existential danger to his party’s prospects in the midterm elections. When the president falters, so does his party. My colleague Charlie Cook has noted that over the past 50 years, the sitting president’s approval rating has been below 50 percent in seven midterm elections. His party lost at least 24 seats in the House in each of those elections.
Of course, we are not in normal times. And, this president is anything but traditional. With a style and identity of his own, Trump is not a typical “party leader.” There is a Republican brand and a Trump brand. This, theoretically gives Republicans the opportunity to distinguish themselves from him and avoid getting dragged down by these dismal approval ratings.
It’s easy to see why Republicans in Congress feel confident that they can define themselves on their own terms. More than 80 percent of the House members out-performed Trump’s showing in their districts in 2016. A number of swing-state GOP senators like Marco Rubio, John McCain and Rob Portman garnered thousands of more votes in their states than did Trump. But, of course, that was before Trump was president. He was an idea in 2016. He is a reality in 2018. And, try as they might to show their independence, they now have voting records in a Trump Administration that they will have to defend, especially the deeply unpopular health care bill passed in the House. Moreover, just ask those Democrats about their own attempts to separate themselves from the Obama-drag in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
There’s nothing new about members of Congress distancing themselves from an unpopular president of their own party. What we haven’t seen before is an unpopular president distancing himself from his own party even as his party is in power. Trump, in his desire to protect his brand, presents a different kind of threat to GOPers in Congress. By actively taunting and upbraiding them for their inaction on issues like the failed health care repeal law (while declaring himself blameless), he only helps exacerbate the anti-Congress sentiment coursing through voter’s veins. The latest example: After Sen. Majority Leader McConnell told a Kentucky audience this week that the president had “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” the President hit back (via Twitter, of course)
Senator Mitch McConnell said I had "excessive expectations," but I don't think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
His social media director, Dan Scarvino was even more direct in his criticism of McConnell, tweeting:
Trump’s allies in the conservative TV/blogosphere world like Sean Hannity and Breitbart News further this divide with their avid defense of the POTUS and attacks against the GOP leadership. Remember, above all else, the Trump brand is defined not by his allies but by his enemies. And, for many defenders and supporters of the president, Congress and its GOP members is the enemy.
Despite recent polling showing a softening support for Trump among Republicans, he remains popular among the base. Most Republicans not named Jeff Flake are doing all they can to avoid antagonizing the president. GOP members know that he remains intensely popular in their districts. As Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio tweeted the other day:
A recent CBS poll put congressional job approval at 19 percent. That same CBS poll found deep frustration among GOP partisans about the lack of support Trump is getting from his own party in Congress. Among Republicans, “fifty-six percent of them say Congressional Republicans are getting in the way” of Trump’s agenda. And, “among those Republicans who say their party is impeding Trump's agenda, nine in 10 are frustrated about that.”
I witnessed this frustration myself at a focus group of GOP voters sponsored by the Democratic SuperPAC Priorities USA. These ten Phoenix-area voters had voted for Senator John McCain and most had voted for Trump as well. They showed some irritation about McCain’s “no” vote on the health care reform bill (one said he felt “betrayed”), but they were most frustrated by the process itself. Not only did they believe the bill was flawed “I blame the Republicans for putting shit in the one hand versus shit on the other hand” said one man. But, they also thought the overall process was rushed. “America should not be voting at 2 a.m.,” voiced one voter in the group, “that’s last call.” Another woman complained that they were “just trying to get this done before they left on vacation.” Moreover, while these voters were all happy with the economy (most ranked the national and their own personal economic situations as solid), they trusted Trump more than congressional GOPers to deal with it. Six of the ten said they had some confidence in Trump’s handling of the economy - just three said this about Republicans in Congress, with most (7) saying they had little confidence in them.
Republican voters who are loyal to the president but lukewarm on the party are the kind of voters who don’t turn out in a midterm election. And, this is where the President’s desire for short term “wins” blinds him to the longer term pain. If Democrats win control of the House (the Senate is likely out of reach), President Trump loses more than his legislative agenda. It would also give Democrats the power to make his life even more miserable. If he’s upset with House intelligence ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff today, just imagine how much he’ll dislike him with subpoena power.
We’ve seen presidents triangulate before –alienating parts of their own coalition to attract a coalition of more moderate members of the other party. See, Bill Clinton post-1994. But, this is different. Trump has no desire to expand his coalition to include Democrats. This is a zero-sum game for him. He’s not trying to triangulate to gain legislative power. He’s attacking Congress to protect himself and his brand - at the likely expense of his own party. This sets up very dangerous cross currents for Republicans to navigate in 2018. They have to convince independent voters, who are currently deeply skeptical of this president and pieces of the GOP agenda, to vote for continued GOP control in Washington. Then, they have to convince their own base that they should come out and support them, even as the leader of their party is chastising them for their fecklessness.