washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

March 16: A Big Fat Elephant Loss in Pennsylvania

Late in the evening of the special election in PA-18 Tuesday night, before it was clear Democrat Conor Lamb had won, I offered some reflections at New York on how shocking it was that this race was even competitive.

While we don’t yet have a clear winner in this election, we do have a clear loser: the Republican Party. This was, as I argued some time ago, the “no-excuses” special election for the GOP. This congressional district is strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either: He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and conservative groups to counteract anything Lamb could throw at him. Plus, he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that decided the presidency. If Lamb wins, it will represent a historic disaster for the GOP. If Saccone wins, it will still send a stark warning sign to the majority party in the House as we head toward November.

Republican message-meister Frank Luntz put it plainly this evening:

Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.

Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November.

Yes, a lot of things can change between now and then. But we are now seeing a regular pattern of Democratic over-performance in special elections — whether they ultimately win or lose — spanning the entire Trump administration so far. This election may just be another data point among many, but put them together and they unambiguously show big trouble for Trump and his party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they can’t make it there (in southwest Pennsylvania), they can’t make it anywhere. And it’s time they woke up and smelled the bitter coffee.

As of this writing, Saccone still hasn’t conceded, despite his cause looking hopeless. But it could be some time before his party recovers from this one.


A Big Fat Elephant Loss in Pennsylvania

Late in the evening of the special election in PA-18 Tuesday night, before it was clear Democrat Conor Lamb had won, I offered some reflections at New York on how shocking it was that this race was even competitive.

While we don’t yet have a clear winner in this election, we do have a clear loser: the Republican Party. This was, as I argued some time ago, the “no-excuses” special election for the GOP. This congressional district is strongly Republican and strongly pro-Trump. Saccone wasn’t a perfect candidate, but he wasn’t a disaster like Roy Moore, either: He had enough outside money and enough get-out-the-vote help from the national party and conservative groups to counteract anything Lamb could throw at him. Plus, he had massive support from the president, his family, and his administration, in an iconic Trump Country district that almost perfectly typified the Rust Belt areas that decided the presidency. If Lamb wins, it will represent a historic disaster for the GOP. If Saccone wins, it will still send a stark warning sign to the majority party in the House as we head toward November.

Republican message-meister Frank Luntz put it plainly this evening:

Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.

Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November.

Yes, a lot of things can change between now and then. But we are now seeing a regular pattern of Democratic over-performance in special elections — whether they ultimately win or lose — spanning the entire Trump administration so far. This election may just be another data point among many, but put them together and they unambiguously show big trouble for Trump and his party. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they can’t make it there (in southwest Pennsylvania), they can’t make it anywhere. And it’s time they woke up and smelled the bitter coffee.

As of this writing, Saccone still hasn’t conceded, despite his cause looking hopeless. But it could be some time before his party recovers from this one.


March 9: California Here Trump Comes, With Bad Intent

As a transplanted Georgia Cracker who now lives in California, I am acutely aware of the low mutual esteem between the President of the United States and the citizens of the nation’s largest state. So his impending trip to California led me to explain it all at New York.

For a president who managed to spend $13.5 million on travel in one year, Donald Trump actually doesn’t get out that much. As the reigning expert on the subject explains, his travel is mostly limited and predictable. He mostly travels to his other homes:

“’He seems to be traveling a lot, but so much of it seems to be traveling to second homes,’ said Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential travel.”

If you expand the definition of “second homes” to hotels he owns, then that covers an awful lot of his travel:

“Except for foreign trips, Trump has spent only one night of his presidency at a hotel he didn’t own. Last August, he slept in Phoenix after a rally before leaving for Reno the next morning.”

While Trump has certainly had the means throughout his life to develop and indulge sophisticated travel tastes, his habits as president are more in keeping with the persona he’s developed as a salt-of-the-earth dude whose interests beyond work are limited to golf, rasslin’ matches, beauty pageants and the occasional white nationalist rally. As the expert Doherty put it: “He seems to like to go places where he’s already very popular or is likely to get a raucous welcome.”

These precedents are freshly relevant as Trump prepares for his first trip to California next week. It’s notable for a couple of reasons. First of all, this is the latest in a presidency that a POTUS has ventured into California since FDR. Back then, of course, presidential trips to the West Coast involved long train trips, not quick flights. And California was not what it is now: a demographic, economic, and political behemoth. From a political perspective alone, the state has 55 electoral votes, a big batch of competitive House districts, and a vast number of campaign donors that give it a reputation as a “political ATM.”

The state also has a reputation, however, as a bastion of the Resistance, and a place where Trump is profoundly unpopular. His trip does not seem well designed to change that perception:

“Sources familiar with Trump’s plans say he is expected to visit California to the US-Mexico border to look at border wall prototypes in the San Diego area.”

Trump critics in California are referring to the trip sardonically as a “border wall hallucination tour.” And hallucination or not, a border wall is not an idea Californians like: a survey last fall showed them disapproving of it by a 73/24 margin. So why is Trump rubbing their noses in it?

This seems to be part of an administration-wide effort to treat the nation’s largest state not as an object of loving persuasion but as a target, and as a demon-figure for the edification and excitement of people in Trump Country. Here’s how CNN sums it up:

“President Donald Trump and his administration have very much tied his political efforts to California by essentially declaring a policy war on the Golden State. On immigration, legalized marijuana, climate change and more, California is the chief policy foil of the White House.”

That strategy was underlined earlier this week when the attorney general of the United States chose to travel to Sacramento to shriek at state officials and the mayor of Oakland about California’s “sanctuary” policies that let local law-enforcement officials choose to limit cooperation with ICE.

Now the idea of California being the source of all evil is hardly novel in the annals of conservative agitprop, at least since the GOP lost its grip on the state in the 21st century. With the state’s economy booming and the state’s budget in balance, it’s not as easy as it used to be to claim the place is one big dystopia. But on the cultural front, there’s always an audience for those who claim California is a hellscape of hippies and sodomites and snooty Hollywood and Silicon Valley elites and illegal aliens, all plotting to destroy the American Dream.

It’s not entirely clear how California Republicans feel about their state becoming a comprehensive punching bag for their administration in Washington. Some represent constituencies that don’t like hippies or immigrants much more than Trump does. But all in all, it can’t be helpful for them that POTUS and his representatives only come to California to attack it.


California Here Trump Comes, With Bad Intent

As a transplanted Georgia Cracker who now lives in California, I am acutely aware of the low mutual esteem between the President of the United States and the citizens of the nation’s largest state. So his impending trip to California led me to explain it all at New York.

For a president who managed to spend $13.5 million on travel in one year, Donald Trump actually doesn’t get out that much. As the reigning expert on the subject explains, his travel is mostly limited and predictable. He mostly travels to his other homes:

“’He seems to be traveling a lot, but so much of it seems to be traveling to second homes,’ said Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential travel.”

If you expand the definition of “second homes” to hotels he owns, then that covers an awful lot of his travel:

“Except for foreign trips, Trump has spent only one night of his presidency at a hotel he didn’t own. Last August, he slept in Phoenix after a rally before leaving for Reno the next morning.”

While Trump has certainly had the means throughout his life to develop and indulge sophisticated travel tastes, his habits as president are more in keeping with the persona he’s developed as a salt-of-the-earth dude whose interests beyond work are limited to golf, rasslin’ matches, beauty pageants and the occasional white nationalist rally. As the expert Doherty put it: “He seems to like to go places where he’s already very popular or is likely to get a raucous welcome.”

These precedents are freshly relevant as Trump prepares for his first trip to California next week. It’s notable for a couple of reasons. First of all, this is the latest in a presidency that a POTUS has ventured into California since FDR. Back then, of course, presidential trips to the West Coast involved long train trips, not quick flights. And California was not what it is now: a demographic, economic, and political behemoth. From a political perspective alone, the state has 55 electoral votes, a big batch of competitive House districts, and a vast number of campaign donors that give it a reputation as a “political ATM.”

The state also has a reputation, however, as a bastion of the Resistance, and a place where Trump is profoundly unpopular. His trip does not seem well designed to change that perception:

“Sources familiar with Trump’s plans say he is expected to visit California to the US-Mexico border to look at border wall prototypes in the San Diego area.”

Trump critics in California are referring to the trip sardonically as a “border wall hallucination tour.” And hallucination or not, a border wall is not an idea Californians like: a survey last fall showed them disapproving of it by a 73/24 margin. So why is Trump rubbing their noses in it?

This seems to be part of an administration-wide effort to treat the nation’s largest state not as an object of loving persuasion but as a target, and as a demon-figure for the edification and excitement of people in Trump Country. Here’s how CNN sums it up:

“President Donald Trump and his administration have very much tied his political efforts to California by essentially declaring a policy war on the Golden State. On immigration, legalized marijuana, climate change and more, California is the chief policy foil of the White House.”

That strategy was underlined earlier this week when the attorney general of the United States chose to travel to Sacramento to shriek at state officials and the mayor of Oakland about California’s “sanctuary” policies that let local law-enforcement officials choose to limit cooperation with ICE.

Now the idea of California being the source of all evil is hardly novel in the annals of conservative agitprop, at least since the GOP lost its grip on the state in the 21st century. With the state’s economy booming and the state’s budget in balance, it’s not as easy as it used to be to claim the place is one big dystopia. But on the cultural front, there’s always an audience for those who claim California is a hellscape of hippies and sodomites and snooty Hollywood and Silicon Valley elites and illegal aliens, all plotting to destroy the American Dream.

It’s not entirely clear how California Republicans feel about their state becoming a comprehensive punching bag for their administration in Washington. Some represent constituencies that don’t like hippies or immigrants much more than Trump does. But all in all, it can’t be helpful for them that POTUS and his representatives only come to California to attack it.


March 8: Trump Takes Republicans Back to Their Protectionist Heritage

As the debate over the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports raged, I though it was important to give the subject a bit more historical perspective. So I did so at New York:

A lot of the pushback the president is getting on his decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports suggests he is violating Republican economic policy orthodoxy. Here’s just one example from Russell Berman:

“The hastily arranged announcement horrified the veteran free-traders who lead the GOP in Congress: not only House Speaker Paul Ryan, but also the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade, Kevin Brady of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, respectively. Trump has rebuffed the efforts by Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers to slow his drive for tariffs, and GOP leaders appear to lack either the will or the votes in Congress to block him legislatively.”

Yes, Republicans have recently been the party of free-traders, more or less. But as the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan reminds them, there’s an older tradition in the GOP to which Trump is entirely faithful:

“From Lincoln to William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, and from Warren Harding through Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party erected the most awesome manufacturing machine the world had ever seen.

“And, as the party of high tariffs through those seven decades, the GOP was rewarded by becoming America’s Party.”

Buchanan is right. Certainly in the late 19th century the GOP was defined as the party of protectionism as much as it was identified with any other issue position. It was the great cause to which Benjamin Harrison devoted his career. William McKinley proudly put his name on the very high-tariff measure that Harrison signed into law. And McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Thank God I’m not a free-trader!” This was a policy tradition, moreover, that could be easily traced back to the GOP’s Whig ancestors and ultimately to Andrew Hamilton.

And Democrats were very much the party of free trade, at least from the days of Martin Van Buren. (Trump’s hero Jackson was not a free-trader in any systematic sense.) Tariffs were the key question separating the two parties in those close elections that capped the 19th century. But beyond that every single Democratic president since Van Buren has made lowering trade barriers a priority. That includes the last several Democrats in the White House; this is not an issue, like civil rights or economic regulation, where the two parties just exchanged positions in the 20th century, with “free trade” being a conservative position. FDR was perhaps the most rigorous free-trader ever, insisting on unilateral trade concessions to Western Europe after World War II. Going back further, the famous populist William Jennings Bryan was a big-time free-trader, too.

Republicans never completely stamped out their protectionist heritage, though market-based and internationalist trade policies became part of the anti-communist consensus after World War II. Recent GOP presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush found it necessary to impose the occasional retaliatory measure on imports affecting vulnerable and politically sensitive sectors like textiles and steel.

But when you listen to Trump talk about trade and tariffs, it’s clear that protectionism is at the center of his understanding of economic policy, not the periphery. I noticed this in June of 2016, when he had nailed down his party’s presidential nomination and was pulling no punches, going “high protectionist” in a speech in the ever-tariff-friendly state of Pennsylvania. Here’s a sample:

“Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

“When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.

“For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered.”

This isn’t the language of a pol who just thinks trade negotiators haven’t been tough or smart enough. He objects to the very idea that economic globalization is or can be a good thing. So why wouldn’t he be perfectly happy with restricting trade?

The big question economically is whether Trump’s new tariffs, which aren’t a huge thing in themselves, have a spiraling effect on other country’s policies and on global investment markets. But the big question politically is whether Republican pols and opinion-leaders follow him down this path, as they have done on so many other matters.

Democrats have their own sorting-out to do on trade policy; “free trade” is now an unsavory term for most of them, and even Hillary Clinton abandoned Barack Obama’s trade agenda in 2016. But it’s important for them to understand the back-to-the-future trend in the GOP.


Trump Takes Republicans Back to Their Protectionist Heritage

As the debate over the president’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports raged, I though it was important to give the subject a bit more historical perspective. So I did so at New York:

A lot of the pushback the president is getting on his decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports suggests he is violating Republican economic policy orthodoxy. Here’s just one example from Russell Berman:

“The hastily arranged announcement horrified the veteran free-traders who lead the GOP in Congress: not only House Speaker Paul Ryan, but also the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade, Kevin Brady of Texas and Orrin Hatch of Utah, respectively. Trump has rebuffed the efforts by Republican lawmakers and some of his own advisers to slow his drive for tariffs, and GOP leaders appear to lack either the will or the votes in Congress to block him legislatively.”

Yes, Republicans have recently been the party of free-traders, more or less. But as the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan reminds them, there’s an older tradition in the GOP to which Trump is entirely faithful:

“From Lincoln to William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, and from Warren Harding through Calvin Coolidge, the Republican Party erected the most awesome manufacturing machine the world had ever seen.

“And, as the party of high tariffs through those seven decades, the GOP was rewarded by becoming America’s Party.”

Buchanan is right. Certainly in the late 19th century the GOP was defined as the party of protectionism as much as it was identified with any other issue position. It was the great cause to which Benjamin Harrison devoted his career. William McKinley proudly put his name on the very high-tariff measure that Harrison signed into law. And McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Thank God I’m not a free-trader!” This was a policy tradition, moreover, that could be easily traced back to the GOP’s Whig ancestors and ultimately to Andrew Hamilton.

And Democrats were very much the party of free trade, at least from the days of Martin Van Buren. (Trump’s hero Jackson was not a free-trader in any systematic sense.) Tariffs were the key question separating the two parties in those close elections that capped the 19th century. But beyond that every single Democratic president since Van Buren has made lowering trade barriers a priority. That includes the last several Democrats in the White House; this is not an issue, like civil rights or economic regulation, where the two parties just exchanged positions in the 20th century, with “free trade” being a conservative position. FDR was perhaps the most rigorous free-trader ever, insisting on unilateral trade concessions to Western Europe after World War II. Going back further, the famous populist William Jennings Bryan was a big-time free-trader, too.

Republicans never completely stamped out their protectionist heritage, though market-based and internationalist trade policies became part of the anti-communist consensus after World War II. Recent GOP presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush found it necessary to impose the occasional retaliatory measure on imports affecting vulnerable and politically sensitive sectors like textiles and steel.

But when you listen to Trump talk about trade and tariffs, it’s clear that protectionism is at the center of his understanding of economic policy, not the periphery. I noticed this in June of 2016, when he had nailed down his party’s presidential nomination and was pulling no punches, going “high protectionist” in a speech in the ever-tariff-friendly state of Pennsylvania. Here’s a sample:

“Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

“When subsidized foreign steel is dumped into our markets, threatening our factories, the politicians do nothing.

“For years, they watched on the sidelines as our jobs vanished and our communities were plunged into depression-level unemployment. Many of these areas have still never recovered.”

This isn’t the language of a pol who just thinks trade negotiators haven’t been tough or smart enough. He objects to the very idea that economic globalization is or can be a good thing. So why wouldn’t he be perfectly happy with restricting trade?

The big question economically is whether Trump’s new tariffs, which aren’t a huge thing in themselves, have a spiraling effect on other country’s policies and on global investment markets. But the big question politically is whether Republican pols and opinion-leaders follow him down this path, as they have done on so many other matters.

Democrats have their own sorting-out to do on trade policy; “free trade” is now an unsavory term for most of them, and even Hillary Clinton abandoned Barack Obama’s trade agenda in 2016. But it’s important for them to understand the back-to-the-future trend in the GOP.


March 2: Looks Like Trump Imposed Tariffs To Make Himself Feel Better On a Bad Day

No matter how you feel about the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that the president imposed this week, the way the decision was made and announced has to be concerning to everyone. I wrote about that at New York.

Taking the kind of action the president took this week in imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is a perilous endeavor for multiple reasons. It may impose more economic damage on Americans than it prevents. It arguably violates world trading rules. It invites retaliation. It can be very destabilizing for markets and investors.

And if you happen to be a Republican president, imposing tariffs can upset much of your party’s free-market opinion leaders, business constituencies, and campaign donors.

While Trump’s action should not have surprised anyone who listened to him rant and rave on the campaign trail about Uncle Sucker getting kicked around by trading partners, it’s still unsettling how he made it. As Eric Levitz noted, it seems to have been an “impulsive action” that was made at a time when the elaborate advisory mechanisms set up to guide him on international economic issues were in chaos.

The more we learn about it, the picture gets even worse.

It’s important to understand that under the process laid out under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the domestic legal authority for these new tariffs, Trump had until April 11 to act on the Commerce Department’s recommendations on steel imports, and until April 19 to act on aluminum. He jumped the gun in a big way, trashing the usual procedures for explaining the action to the public, other countries, and various economic players. Why was that? According to NBC News, Trump was freaked out over other, entirely unrelated problems, and basically launched a trade war to make himself feel better. Seriously.

“On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

“A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

“Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade.”

This culminated in a seat-of-the-pants decision announced at a White House meeting that was advertised as a discussion:

“The Thursday morning meeting did not originally appear on the president’s public schedule. Shortly after it began, reporters were told that Ross had convened a ‘listening’ session at the White House with 15 executives from the steel and aluminum industry.

“Then, an hour later, in an another unexpected move, reporters were invited to the Cabinet room. Without warning, Trump announced on the spot that he was imposing new strict tariffs on imports.

“By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. stock market had fallen and Trump, surrounded by his senior advisers in the Oval Office, was said to be furious.”

And that’s the constant in this whole situation: The president is furious, and someone has to pay.


Looks Like Trump Imposed Tariffs To Make Himself Feel Better On a Bad Day

No matter how you feel about the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that the president imposed this week, the way the decision was made and announced has to be concerning to everyone. I wrote about that at New York.

Taking the kind of action the president took this week in imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is a perilous endeavor for multiple reasons. It may impose more economic damage on Americans than it prevents. It arguably violates world trading rules. It invites retaliation. It can be very destabilizing for markets and investors.

And if you happen to be a Republican president, imposing tariffs can upset much of your party’s free-market opinion leaders, business constituencies, and campaign donors.

While Trump’s action should not have surprised anyone who listened to him rant and rave on the campaign trail about Uncle Sucker getting kicked around by trading partners, it’s still unsettling how he made it. As Eric Levitz noted, it seems to have been an “impulsive action” that was made at a time when the elaborate advisory mechanisms set up to guide him on international economic issues were in chaos.

The more we learn about it, the picture gets even worse.

It’s important to understand that under the process laid out under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the domestic legal authority for these new tariffs, Trump had until April 11 to act on the Commerce Department’s recommendations on steel imports, and until April 19 to act on aluminum. He jumped the gun in a big way, trashing the usual procedures for explaining the action to the public, other countries, and various economic players. Why was that? According to NBC News, Trump was freaked out over other, entirely unrelated problems, and basically launched a trade war to make himself feel better. Seriously.

“On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

“A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

“Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade.”

This culminated in a seat-of-the-pants decision announced at a White House meeting that was advertised as a discussion:

“The Thursday morning meeting did not originally appear on the president’s public schedule. Shortly after it began, reporters were told that Ross had convened a ‘listening’ session at the White House with 15 executives from the steel and aluminum industry.

“Then, an hour later, in an another unexpected move, reporters were invited to the Cabinet room. Without warning, Trump announced on the spot that he was imposing new strict tariffs on imports.

“By Thursday afternoon, the U.S. stock market had fallen and Trump, surrounded by his senior advisers in the Oval Office, was said to be furious.”

And that’s the constant in this whole situation: The president is furious, and someone has to pay.


February 28: The GOP’s Especially Big Base/Swing Dilemma

Looking at recent polling trends and their relationship to political news, I had a thought that I explained in some detail at New York:

For a while there in January and early February, American politics revolved around phenomena other than the volcanic personality of our president: the effect of the December 2017 GOP tax cuts; positive economic news; the fate of Dreamers; an appropriations battle in which Trump was mostly on the sidelines. Coincidentally or not, both the president and his party had some of their sunniest polling numbers in a long time last month. Trump’s approval rating moved north of 40 percent and stayed there in most assessments, and the double-digit Democratic advantages in the generic congressional ballot that grew common in December were more than halved overall. One highly publicized poll from Morning Consult in early February had Republicans actually moving ahead.

But as Eric Levitz recently observed, the Democratic “polling panic” has now subsided, with the generic ballot numbers moving back toward the robust advantages for the Donkey Party we saw in December. And now it’s becoming clear Trump’s own approval ratings are following the same pattern: In FiveThirtyEight’s averages (which adjust the numbers for established partisan “leans” and also give slightly greater weight to more accurate pollsters), he’s back below 40 percent, where he spent most of 2017.

It’s possible these trends simply reflect a reversion to the mean after a short, atypical moment. But it may be less than coincidental that the end of that moment occurred during a period when Trump was very large if not necessarily in charge.

During the last three weeks, political news has been dominated by fresh evidence of turmoil in the White House (punctuated by the Porter scandal that represented a combo platter of incompetence and insensitivity about domestic violence), new developments in the Mueller investigation, and erratic Trump behavior on Twitter and elsewhere. A particularly dangerous juncture for Trump may have been the Presidents’ Day weekend when he went on an extended Twitter rampage, mostly about the FBI and the Mueller investigation, even as media focused on the Parkland massacre. The jury’s still out on the effect of the president’s personal involvement in the post-massacre debate on gun control, though his steadily increasing investment in the loopy idea of arming teachers doesn’t bode well for him.

If this theory is right, or even half right, we should expect some more short-term deterioration in the president’s approval ratings and the GOP’s standing in the generic ballot. More importantly, it underscores a persistent dilemma for the president’s team. Without question, Trump being Trump is important to the maintenance of maximum excitement within his electoral base, and that is an asset of great importance in relatively low-turnout midterm elections. But if Republicans need the simmering anti-liberal resentments of the MAGA crowd to remain at a near-boiling-point as November approaches, the presidential behavior that most reliably keeps the heat on also appears to repel voters who might be otherwise persuaded to stick with Trump’s party on policy grounds.

How to balance base mobilization and swing-voter persuasion is a perennial puzzle for any political party. But it’s especially complicated when the base glories in the very characteristics of a leader that actually frighten others. If Republicans become convinced that revving up the base is the only thing they care about in this midterm election cycle, they won’t have to do a whole lot to encourage Trump to go absolutely wild for weeks on end.


The GOP’s Especially Big Base/Swing Dilemma

Looking at recent polling trends and their relationship to political news, I had a thought that I explained in some detail at New York:

For a while there in January and early February, American politics revolved around phenomena other than the volcanic personality of our president: the effect of the December 2017 GOP tax cuts; positive economic news; the fate of Dreamers; an appropriations battle in which Trump was mostly on the sidelines. Coincidentally or not, both the president and his party had some of their sunniest polling numbers in a long time last month. Trump’s approval rating moved north of 40 percent and stayed there in most assessments, and the double-digit Democratic advantages in the generic congressional ballot that grew common in December were more than halved overall. One highly publicized poll from Morning Consult in early February had Republicans actually moving ahead.

But as Eric Levitz recently observed, the Democratic “polling panic” has now subsided, with the generic ballot numbers moving back toward the robust advantages for the Donkey Party we saw in December. And now it’s becoming clear Trump’s own approval ratings are following the same pattern: In FiveThirtyEight’s averages (which adjust the numbers for established partisan “leans” and also give slightly greater weight to more accurate pollsters), he’s back below 40 percent, where he spent most of 2017.

It’s possible these trends simply reflect a reversion to the mean after a short, atypical moment. But it may be less than coincidental that the end of that moment occurred during a period when Trump was very large if not necessarily in charge.

During the last three weeks, political news has been dominated by fresh evidence of turmoil in the White House (punctuated by the Porter scandal that represented a combo platter of incompetence and insensitivity about domestic violence), new developments in the Mueller investigation, and erratic Trump behavior on Twitter and elsewhere. A particularly dangerous juncture for Trump may have been the Presidents’ Day weekend when he went on an extended Twitter rampage, mostly about the FBI and the Mueller investigation, even as media focused on the Parkland massacre. The jury’s still out on the effect of the president’s personal involvement in the post-massacre debate on gun control, though his steadily increasing investment in the loopy idea of arming teachers doesn’t bode well for him.

If this theory is right, or even half right, we should expect some more short-term deterioration in the president’s approval ratings and the GOP’s standing in the generic ballot. More importantly, it underscores a persistent dilemma for the president’s team. Without question, Trump being Trump is important to the maintenance of maximum excitement within his electoral base, and that is an asset of great importance in relatively low-turnout midterm elections. But if Republicans need the simmering anti-liberal resentments of the MAGA crowd to remain at a near-boiling-point as November approaches, the presidential behavior that most reliably keeps the heat on also appears to repel voters who might be otherwise persuaded to stick with Trump’s party on policy grounds.

How to balance base mobilization and swing-voter persuasion is a perennial puzzle for any political party. But it’s especially complicated when the base glories in the very characteristics of a leader that actually frighten others. If Republicans become convinced that revving up the base is the only thing they care about in this midterm election cycle, they won’t have to do a whole lot to encourage Trump to go absolutely wild for weeks on end.