Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leaders UK programme.
Donald Trump was hardly a popular candidate for president of the United States amongst the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Despite securing an election win against the odds that unified the executive and legislature – therefore increasing the likelihood of passing a conservative agenda and rolling back eight years of Barack Obama’s legacy – he has remained a divisive figure as president.
While being rock solid on some core conservative issues, he has frustrated many on the Hill with a willingness to openly brief against his own side and do deals with the Democrats. Aware of how precious a unified Washington is, Congressional Republicans have grown irritated by the president’s ongoing inability to grasp the political tact required to pull the levers of power effectively. An empty list of legislative victories so far remains proof of that.
Internal angst has come to a head. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) has become embroiled in a public spat with the president that could reignite at any moment. Corker took to Twitter to unload on Trump, describing the White House as “an adult day care center”. It was hardly the action of an incumbent Republican who fears the backlash from the president’s fiercely loyal and unwavering supporters. Corker, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not standing for re-election and has the luxury of being able to speak his mind.
Playing the president’s game ahead of the midterms
By creating enemies while failing to make new friends in the Senate, Trump worsens his chances of legislative success, with 60 votes needed for legislation to pass. Republicans can only afford to lose two of their own votes and the list of rebels is growing. Senators Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, Rand Paul and Susan Collins have all voted or threatened to vote down Republican legislation in this Congress, and that list will get longer if Trump keeps picking fights.
The Trump strategy could benefit from dissenting Republicans like those listed. Steve Bannon proved his power and influence in the Alabama special election, where the candidate endorsed by Breitbart and Bannon defeated the incumbent who had been backed by the president and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader. At a summit last week, Bannon declared war on the GOP establishment, attacking a number of Republican members of Congress by name, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Trump has stayed closely connected to Bannon, despite firing him from the White House. It is easy to see how the two could fall into step on the 2018 trail, running a ‘Drain the swamp 2.0’ campaign aimed at flushing out Republicans and Democrats who have frustrated the president’s agenda in Congress.
This presents a difficult conundrum for the eight Republicans up for re-election in November 2018. Corker has created the political cover for Republicans to become more vocal opponents of the president, but the threat of primary challengers from the right wing of the party looms large.
That does not eliminate risk for the White House. Unbound by the shackles of re-election or a primary challenge, a growing list of Senators have little to lose from speaking their minds. Bob Corker is retiring. John McCain’s health means his political career is coming to an unfortunate and premature close. Susan Collins could leave Congress and run for governor of Maine. They are not scared of Donald Trump or of the Breitbart machine behind him.
At the Congressional level, Democrats need to net 24 seats to take back control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Democrats need to pick up net three seats to win a majority. The president’s high-risk legislative strategy seems to be based on writing off 2017-18, and relying on the midterm elections returning a much more supportive caucus. Republican primary challengers who won their seats having subscribed to the Trump and Breitbart agenda will feel they owe their presence to the president. That will exponentially increase the likelihood of them voting with his agenda in Congress.
The White House’s approach comes with sky-high risks, but could result in the reward of a fiercely loyal new generation of Trumpian Congressman and Senators. In the shorter term though, Senator Corker could become the vanguard for Republicans who speak more openly about their president.