After the drubbing Republicans took Tuesday, they need to stand back and look at their options. None of them are very good. They can keep on the current course. They can embrace Trump even more. Or they can start to govern without him. I highly recommend the latter.
Since Trump got elected, Republicans in Congress have largely ignored his brash behavior, inappropriate tweets and attacks on fellow Republicans. Sure, John McCain, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have called him out but most have stayed silent. They haven’t really embraced him and they’re wary of his more nationalistic stances, but they also have avoided antagonizing him or calling out his repugnant behavior. In fact, until yesterday, Trump still enjoyed high approval ratings from Republicans even if the rest of the country has serious reservations or outright disdain for the tweeter-in-chief.
They can continue on this middle path of basically pretending everything is normal while the building is on fire, but that’s probably going to result in an outcome next November similar to the one they suffered Tuesday. Trump clearly played large in the election. His base stayed home while energized Democrats made up a much larger percentage of the electorate than in the last gubernatorial election in 2013—and they won that one, too.
They can try to motivate Trump’s base by embracing the president and all that requires. They’ll have to accept being demeaned and encourage the cult of personality that Trump so clearly wants to foster. Unfortunately, Americans aren’t generally into that whole thing, especially those true libertarian-types who don’t want anyone telling them what to do. It might work in a low-turnout midterm election but latching onto a guy whose approval rating is in the mid-thirties seems very risky. On the flip side, Trump’s approval is about 25 points higher than that of the Republican-controlled Congress, so who knows?
The better option is for Republicans to try to reclaim their party and oppose the president’s damaging behavior while undermining him when possible. They need desperately to prove that they are a governing party, not just an opposition one. Trump was totally willing to throw them under the bus to cut deals with the Democrats. The Republicans in Congress should do the same—to both Trump and their colleagues who oppose compromise.
In exit polls, voters said their top issue was healthcare. The GOP leadership should reach out to Democrats to fix Obamacare by shoring up markets and expanding Medicaid. Instead of making us suffer through awful commercials like the ones that marred the Virginia race, they should pass immigration reform that better secures our borders while working out a path to citizenship for long-term residents who have played by the rules. In short, they should prove that they can govern, which is what the people want. They may lose because they alienate Trump’s base in a low turnout election but I bet they would better inoculated against an anti-Trump wave if it emerges in 2020.
In the wake of this off-year defeat, Republicans have three viable options. They can continue on the same path as the party that does nothing. They can become the full-on Trump party, which basically means working toward a Trump dictatorship. Or they can start to govern in spite of Trump. The third option seems to make the most sense. I doubt they’ll go that route.