Opinion - My fellow politics contributor, Robert Sasso, recently argued that President Trump is his own worst enemy and could drag down Republicans in 2018, but I would add: the Republicans really aren’t helping themselves. After nominating and electing a president that appears to select cabinet appointees as if he is casting a movie about the presidency, the Republicans have proven inept at political stage management.
On health care, an issue tailor-made for reckless demagoguery, the president went from remarking, “nobody knew health care could be so complicated” to, he insists now, “understanding everything there is to know about health care,” but that is hardly believable considering he grew so tired of negotiations that he attempted to abandon the effort to pass a health care reform bill without repercussions. Even the House leadership team was prepared to take the exit ramp when other lawmakers insisted on negotiating further and ultimately passed the bill before the Spring recess.
Then, in one of the most ill-advised examples of political theater, the majority of House Republicans hopped on a bus and went to the White House for a photo-op/news conference with the unpopular president, touting their passage of an unpopular bill. One could have only imagined the faces of Democratic campaign staffers watching President Trump literally take center stage for a picture they couldn’t have photoshopped any better. Dubbed the “Bon Jovi” conference, the bill is ¼ of its way through the legislative process and isn’t even being considered by the Senate Republicans who want to write their own legislation. The CBO’s scores are based on unchanging assumptions - they won’t get better. The headlines will only get worse and this Rose Garden celebration will haunt Republicans as voters are told 24 million people will lose their health care and seniors with medical conditions will be priced out of insurance altogether. President Trump remains widely popular among Republicans and a majority of Republican voters support the House bill, but elections are won on the margins, and the margin is only 24 seats in the House of Representatives. Vulnerable incumbents were wise to vote against it and stay away from the White House, but they can’t really distance themselves from the party.
The process is repeating for the president’s budget for fiscal year 2018. Washington is plagued with loose talk of “cruel” cuts whenever conservatives call for reduced rates of increased spending as the White House has proposed. It is literally fuzzy math that says any reduction in future spending is a budget cut that would harm beneficiaries. But it seems the only person in the White House willing to engage in that debate is the White House Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, Mick Mulvaney. There should be a lot more action than the Republican National Committee’s website promoting a video of Mulvaney explaining, “only in Washington does increased spending get counted as a cut” to a congressional committee. “This is fake math!” would not be a hard message to sell to conservative and Republican voters that would then promulgate it.
There was an obvious approach to these roll-outs that would have worked far better. First, the White House chief of staff is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He has a huge rolodex of contacts inside and outside the party that will readily defend the president’s priorities and messaging. Local Republican leaders could write letters to the editors of newspapers and blogs and they could respond to news pieces that they find biased or incomplete. With the conservative-leaning Sinclair group acquiring many local stations, Republicans may find sympathetic executives that would give them a platform to address concerns.
Second, the president and the vice president should invite conservative luminaries to the White House and encourage writers and opinion-shapers to engage in the debate on more favorable terms. Conservative writers and pundits value independence but when everyone agrees on the mission, why not read from the same script?
Third, the White House should make more of an effort to lead elected Republicans toward their positions. Mike Pence’s visits to Capitol Hill helped save the health care bill, for all its flaws, and regular visits to the conferences in both chambers could certainly help with the one group that has to actually haul these policies across the finish line, congressional Republicans.
Finally, the president should engage directly with the “fake” news media to push back on their bias and hostility. Twitter is his obvious choice of medium but as they did before his well-received address to Congress, the White House could start by simply inviting the reporters and executives of major news organizations to the Oval Office so the president could deliver his message directly, and if that didn’t work, the other acts of engagement would pay off as reinforcements would arrive to bolster the president’s message in the face of relentless criticism.
These are all steps a competent Republican president might take, but only if he was truly engaged and committed to realizing his ambitions. These are bold proposals and they require deft salesmanship to explain. With the president unwilling or too “incompetent” to deliver, that job falls to other Republicans, and, right now, they’re not doing it very well. The consequences of could be total inaction and/or devastation in the 2018 midterms, and they’d have only themselves to blame.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU
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