The realization that the long simmering conflict within the Republican Party between its establishment members and its populist movement has broken out into an all out civil war should come as no surprise to anyone. For far too many years establishment Republican politicians and their big business supporters used religious and other social issues to pander to their very socially conservative voter base to get elected to Congress and the White House.
However, once elected, Republican politicians used their power to enact laws and tax cuts which profited large corporations and the very rich while promising that the benefits would “trickle down” to the voters who elected them. With the middle class shrinking as good paying blue collar started to disappear and with the financial gap between the very rich and the voters making up the Republican base widening every year, the stage was set within the party for populist revolt. Trump, ever the opportunist, positioned himself to take full advantage of that situation.
However, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Trump would still have not have been successful if the Democratic Party had not somehow lost touch with blue collar workers, a constituency which was previously a very important segment of its base. Trump sealed his victory by winning the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a total of 107,000 votes or less than one tenth of one percent of the total votes cast in the election. This would not have been remotely possible without large defections of disaffected blue collar workers drawn to Trump populist messages in each of those three states.
Whether the Democratic Party lost the confidence of those voters because it largely ignored them while it concentrated on identity politics or because they weren’t comfortable with the Party’s drift to the left, or because of any number of other factors can be debated. What is clear, however, is that the coalition consisting only of liberal whites and the various minority groups is not yet powerful enough to assure the Democratic Party of firm control of the White House and both Houses of Congress. Democrats must convince blue collar workers and their families, especially in states which have lost a number of manufacturing jobs, that they are again in their corner.
Nor should we ignore the real split between the most progressive voters who supported Bernie Sanders and the more moderate progressives who supported Hillary. While I am reasonably sure that most of the Sanders supporters ultimately voted for Clinton in the general election However, due to the after effects of bruising primary fight, for many of Sanders’ most active supporters voting for the Democratic candidate was all they could bring themselves to do. Many of those voters with whom I am personally acquainted believed that Party insiders had their thumb on the scales. As a result they contributed neither their time, their money or their boundless enthusiasm to Clinton campaign depriving it of the hands on support of some of the most politically active progressives.
Nor can we ignore the effect the split of the progressive vote in key states. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s vote total was greater than Trump’s margin of victory by 2,913 votes, 22,748 votes, and 40,759 votes respectively.
On a more positive note, since the election Trump has deepen the divisions in the Republican Party by picking fights with some of the most prominent Republicans in Congress. His outlandish behavior and refusal to come to grips with the complexity of the issues facing Congress is driving many GOP establishment members to distraction. The majority of the Republican Senators and Representatives in Congress have managed to bite their tongues rather than openly criticize Trump for fear of upsetting his base of supporters, but there are strong indications that the patience of some, including some of the most powerful GOP Senators, has reached the breaking point.
Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, his continued criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans has resulted in serious feud between the two men. After a telephone call erupted into a profane shouting match, the two are barely speaking to each other despite their need to coordinate closely on the legislative front. McConnell has privately expressed doubts as to whether Trump can salvage his Presidency. Despite a very public kumbaya session held recently, insiders privately admit that the two men are still very much at odds. When the President and the Republican leader of the Senate are essentially at war, it does not bode well for their party or for their legislative agenda.
Trump, a known draft dodger, started his war with Senator John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, with his “heroes don’t get captured” comments early during the Republican primary and he chooses continue the feud despite the revelation that McCain is fighting an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Trump repeatedly trashed McCain after the Senator helped derail two desperate final attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare with totally misguided legislation. In my opinion, that bill, had it passed, would have left the Republican Party far more vulnerable in future elections. On the other hand McCain has been very critical of Trump’s attempts to buddy up with Vladimir Putin and especially Trump’s comments indicating that the US and Russia were morally equivalent. He has also heaped criticism on Trump for his openness to enhanced interrogation techniques.
There was little doubt that it was Trump and Steve Bannon to which John McCain was referring in a recent speech: “To fear the world where we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we’ve advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of-some half baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who had rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans have consigned to the trash heap of history.”
It is also obvious that Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee has apparently had enough of Trump and since he isn’t running for reelection he no longer sees a need to remain quite. He has openly questioned Trump emotional stability and his competence to hold office. After a recent Trump tweet storm was directed against him, Corker was quoted as saying that the White house has become “an adult day care center” and “someone obviously missed their shift this morning”. Yesterday, in a interview with a CNN reporter, Corker went much further and declared all out war against Trump as did Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona as he announced he would not be running for reelection on the Senate floor.
Regardless of whether Trump was crossing verbal swords Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, John McCain, Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) or Ohio Governor John Kasich, all of this could be caulked up to an extended aberration rather than a cultural war within the Republican Party. After all, what else should we expect from a thin skinned narcissistic that surprisingly finds him self endowed with the powers of the bully pulpit?
However, Trumpism is now more than just a series of nasty internal squabbles being played out on the national and world stages. What originally was part of a disingenuous attempt to take advantage of wedge issues in the Republican Party to satisfy his personal ambitions, as John McCain’s speech implies, Trump’s brand economic nationalism and his attempts to disrupt the status quo have evolved into an internal battle for the soul of the Republican Party. And no battles are fought without casualties on both sides.
If you need further proof, you need to look no further than Steve Bannon’s new crusade. During a recent speech at the Values Voter Summit he told the conservative activists in attendance that he was declaring “war” on prominent establishment politicians including Senators Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada and Roger Wicker of Mississippi and others who are up for reelection in 2018. “Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment.”
This is far from just empty bluster. He is actively recruiting pro-Trump candidates who support his populist and economic nationalistic agendas to challenge many incumbents in the Republican primaries. In fact, Bannon has stated that only Senator Cruz might escape his primary challenges. Bannon’s efforts have the financial support of Trump supporter and conservative billionaire mega-donor Robert Mercer. Mercer is apparently willing to contribute millions of dollars to the campaigns of each of the candidates who will be attempting to unseat Republican incumbents.
The success of controversial Judge Roy Moore, who Bannon supported in Republican primary to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions of Alabama, gave an added lift to Bannon’s efforts. However, don’t expect the Senate incumbents led by Mitch McConnell to be caught napping. McConnell has repeatedly complained to Trump about the dangers the primaries might pose to his slim Senate majority, but to no avail. So expect the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC founded by former McConnell aids, to attempt to protect the thin Republican majority in the Senate by soliciting millions of dollars from billionaires and corporations with lobbying interest before Congress to fund the primary campaigns of Senate incumbents. All of this adds up to huge, expensive fights in the Republican primaries.
This is all good news for Democratic challengers for those Senate and House seats. Since of the 34 Senate seats at stake, Democrats and independents voting with Democrats currently have to defend 25 of them, 2018 is not supposed to be a good off year Senate election cycle for the Democratic Party. However, the war threatening to rip the Republican Party in two could be the equalizer. Even if Republican incumbents for the large part win their primary battles, huge expense allocations for those primary fights will be a big drain their financial resources leaving less to spend on their general election campaigns. In addition, no candidate emerges from a bitter and bloody primary fight unscathed and with his/her reputation totally intact.
In addition, Bannon’s pro-Trump anti-establishment candidates should have a decent chance to successfully challenge their incumbent opponents in the primaries because GOP voters respect Trump more than Congressional Republicans by a large margin. From a recent CNN poll: “Asked directly whether they trust Trump or the congressional Republicans to handle major issues facing the country, 63% of Republicans choose Trump, 29% said Republicans in Congress.” On the hand, among all voters Trump’s approval ratings are still in the tank. From the same poll: “Overall, 37% of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling the presidency, 57% disapprove – virtually identical to his marks in late September. But the percentage who say things in the country are going well has fallen from 53% in August to 46% now.” In addition: “Amid that Republican divide, the poll also finds Democrats holding a lead in the generic congressional ballot — 51% to 37% overall.” (CNN)
So in the final analysis, Bannon’s campaign could be disastrous for the Republican Party. He has been told this repeatedly, but he refuses to back down. Republican incumbents could emerge battered and bruised from their primary fights having spent too much of their financial war chests on just making it into the general elections. On the other hand, the challengers might emerge victorious from the Republican primaries because their pro-Trump, anti-establishment stances are popular among Republican voters only to find those politics are albatrosses around their necks in the general elections.
Whereas previously political experts considered it likely that the Democrats will lose more Senate seats in the 2018 elections, with these new dynamics in play they are starting to entertain the idea that it is least possible that Democrats could maintain their existing seats and even win one or two more. Even Republicans are starting to worry out loud about the possibility of losing control of the House of Representatives. That eventuality was considered all but impossible not long ago due the gerrymandering of congressional districts by Republican controlled state legislatures. However, Democrats and progressive independents have to be primed and ready take full advantage of these situation in 2018 and to transfer that momentum into the presidential and congressional elections of 2020.
I consider the following absolutely essential for Democratic success going forward:
1) We must pick the right Democratic candidate for each individual political environment. There is an old political truism, “all politics are local” and that saying still applies. No state is exactly like any other and all house districts are to some extent different from one another. For instance, as of now the Republican Senate seats of Bob Corker of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada are rated as toss ups in the 2018 election, meaning that the right Democratic candidates could win those seats. Regardless of whether the incumbents or the their anti-establishments rivals win the Republican primaries in those states, it would be unwise for the Democrats to nominate for those seats the type very progressive candidates who would probably win easily in New Jersey or California. That kind of candidate would be unelectable in Nevada or Arizona.
2) The Democratic Party in general and local candidates in particular need to demonstrate that we are sensitive and responsive to the needs and concerns of blue collar workers as well as minorities. This is especially true in states which have lost an inordinate number of manufacturing jobs. Most of those jobs are not coming back. If and when those companies return to this country to make their products it will be because extensive mechanization will have become cheaper than foreign labor. Policies must be formulated to stimulate the economy to produce new jobs to replace those manufacturing jobs in the states where they have been lost. In addition, six million good paying jobs are currently going unfilled in this country because the companies involved cannot find qualified job applicants. We need to create private/government partnerships to train out of work individuals in the skills needed to fill those jobs. If necessary we also need to provide incentives for workers and their families to move to where the jobs they are capable of performing are available.
3) Democrats and independent progressives must quit fighting among ourselves. If we are to take advantage of deep divisions within the Republican Party, we must not disavow those among us who would sow divisions in our own party. If we are to be successful in the near future (2018 and 2020), we cannot afford to allow ourselves to be split into ultra progressives and moderate progressives camps considering the enemy we have in common.
Regardless of whether our favorite candidate for President or a congressional seat wins in the Democratic primary, we must in embrace and enthusiastically support our nominee unless we are stupid enough to believe that his or her Republican opponent is a better choice. In addition, I choose not to describe here my utter contempt for any so called progressive who is selfish and self righteous enough to vote for a third party candidate thereby increasing the likelihood of a Republican victory in an important election.
4) We must use the high level of energy which has been generated by our revulsion and total disdain for the Donald J. Trump to our advantage. We must forever carry with us realization that that even when we believe the GOP cannot nominate a worse candidate than we have seen in the past, they are fully capable of doing just that. And we cannot ever forget that such a candidate might just be capable of wining. We must translate that energy into enthusiasm and support for Democratic congressional and presidential nominees, regardless of who they may ultimately be, regardless of whether or not their political views match ours exactly.
2018 was projected to be a bad off year election cycle for Democrats, but the deep divisions within the Republican Party may well provide an opportunity to at least start turning Congress around to our liking. Hopefully that will provide momentum into the next cycle of elections, but even if it doesn’t, the Republicans have to defend 21 of the 32 Senate seats up for reelection in 2020.
More importantly, if he lasts until the end first term, either Trump with his dismal approval ratings will be the Republican nominee or the Republicans have a no holds barred fight between their establishment and their anti-establishment wings to select his replacement. The Republican camp that loses will be very unhappy with the winner. However, we must generate the proper attitude and take the necessary steps to be able take full advantage of those situations.