A midterm election cycle that looks more like a tsunami in Democrats' favor after nearly two weeks of vote-counting should prompt Republicans to assess their policies and political prospects. While data confirm President Donald Trump is a problem, he may not be the Republicans' biggest problem.
In a post-midterm poll, the Pew Research Center finds "nearly two-thirds of those who say they voted in the midterm elections (64%) say Trump was a consideration in their vote, while 35% say the president was not much of a factor. Overall, 39% say their vote was a vote against Trump, while fewer (25%) say their choice was a vote for Trump." While a majority of Republicans (61 percent) don't want a primary challenger, 37 percent do; moreover, the groups that the GOP has the most trouble holding on to - women and younger voters - are more open to a challenger (43 percent and 48 percent, respectively).
So Trump is a problem insofar as he appears to have provoked a huge defection from the GOP of women and, more generally, college-educated voters and suburbanites. That, however, is not the worst of it for Republicans.
After an election in which Trump's tax cuts were a political loser and attempts at killing Obamacare were a political death sentence, Republicans should wake up. On nearly every issue, what they are selling voters aren't buying. Pew found:
"When asked if Donald Trump or Democrats in Congress will have the better approach to a range of specific issues - or whether there's not much difference between the two - the public prefers the approach of Democrats in many areas.
"For example, 55% of the public says Democrats will have a better approach to the environment, while 19% think Trump's approach will be better. A quarter says there won't be much difference between the two.
"On ethics in government, about half (48%) say Democrats will have a better approach, compared with just 22% who say Trump will have a better approach. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) say there's not much difference between the respective approaches.
"The pattern of opinion is similar in attitudes toward Medicare, health care, and Social Security, with pluralities favoring the approach of Democrats over Trump."
On foreign policy, Trump's "America First"/anti-Western-democracies (or whatever it is) approach is not impressing voters. Only 35 percent favor his approach while 43 percent favor Democrats' approach. On Trump's favorite issue - immigration - voters prefer Democrats' approach (46 percent) over his (40 percent). Trump does so poorly on ethics and the environment that a majority of Republicans don't prefer his approach on these issues. (Only 46 percent favor Trump on ethics, while 41 percent favor him on the environment.) Trump does better than Democrats on jobs and economic growth, however.
There are a few conclusions to draw from these results.
First, if Republicans stick with Trump, their least enthusiastic voters (women and young people) may continue to drift away. Democrats have an opening to entice these groups to vote Democratic in 2020, as many did in the midterms. Outside of deep-red enclaves, Trump generates a strong political backlash, aiding Democratic turnout.
Second, for some time now Republicans have lacked a compelling agenda. Tax cuts for the rich, entitlement cuts and insistence on "small government" were, by 2016, the unpopular views that allowed an ideological heretic such as Trump to win the party. Once in office, he has reverted to tax cuts for the rich, tried to take away Obamacare and run up a huge debt. Cronyism and corruption are rampant. What's popular about that? Not much, voters are telling Republicans. Right now, the right is an intellectual wasteland where good policy goes to die - killed off by economic illiteracy on trade and immigration, denial of science and lack of interest in investing in workers (e.g., education, worker training).
Third, all of this takes place in a remarkably strong economy. There is reason to believe, however, that the bull economy won't last for two more years. Ben White of Politico writes that Trump has reason to fear the end of the "sugar high" from tax cuts. He explains, "Fiscal stimulus from the GOP tax cuts is likely to start running out. The Federal Reserve is expected to keep bumping up interest rates. And few analysts expect a divided Congress - facing soaring deficits and with its eyes on 2020 - to join hands and pass a big infrastructure package or sweeping middle-class tax cuts to keep the fiscal juice flowing."
In part, the prospects for sustained growth look mediocre at best because the promised surge in corporate investment didn't materialize. Instead, corporate tax cuts sparked a flurry of stock buybacks.
Among the stale ideas in the GOP's policy cupboard is the party's infatuation with tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations as the end-all and be-all of economic policy. As Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker wrote in The Washington Post, "The advocates of the tax cut promised an investment boom, which they claimed would provide long-term benefits in the form of higher productivity growth. However, there is no evidence of this boom to date, with investment up only modestly from year-ago levels. In fact, in the last quarter, business investment grew at less than a 1.0 percent rate. Nor do we see evidence of a forthcoming boom in the various measures of business intentions or orders for capital goods, i.e., measures of future investment." Throw in China's slowdown in growth and Trump's trade war, and the economy may not be firing on all cylinders in a year or so.
In sum, Trump personally is an anvil around the necks of his party members outside deep-red enclaves. More systemically, Republicans are out of popular policy ideas, and the only thing keeping them politically afloat is the economy - which sure doesn’t seem like it will perform indefinitely as Trump promised. Democrats cannot beat something with nothing, but if they could scrape together a competent, non-offensive presidential nominee, advance some popular ideas (e.g., infrastructure, ethics reform, shoring up health care and cutting drug prices) and champion economic policies based on something other than more tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, they might win in 2020. But that’s a big “if.”
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.