North Korea

Republicans Hold Their Breath; Democrats Keep Debating Themselves

The 2018 midterm election is just six months away, with congressional Republicans eager to defend their record in the face of unpredictable Trump tweets and Democrats still groping for the right mix of messages that will move America.

The 2018 midterm election is just six months away, with congressional Republicans eager to defend their record in the face of unpredictable Trump tweets and Democrats still groping for the right mix of messages that will move America.

With the pivotal 2018 midterm elections less than six months away, it is timely to assess likely Republican and Democratic campaign themes. They aren’t exactly obvious. And neither is the election outcome, which could be a blue wave or red dawn.

The one sure thing is that Republican candidates will be tethered to President Trump, whether they like it or not. His zig-zags on trade, immigration and diplomacy will vex GOP incumbents and hopefuls, especially in Farm and Rust Belt states. Trump’s doubling-down on culture war issues will buoy social conservatives and complicate campaigns for Republicans running in swing districts or blue states.

Democrats appear to be still arguing over their 2018 themes. Do they run against Trump and tout the prospect of his impeachment? Or do they focus on bread-and-butter issues such as health care, income security and retooling job training? And what about the ongoing Russia investigation?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NPR last week congressional Republicans should run on their record. “This is the best year and a half for right-of-center policies since I've been here,” he said. “Everything from tax relief, to repealing the individual mandate to 15 uses of the Congressional Review Act. We mentioned the courts, comprehensive tax reform.”

In the same interview, McConnell admitted the GOP faces a stiff wind to hold on to one or both houses of Congress. That’s largely because of the shadow cast by the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, potential Trump campaign collusion with Kremlin-connected Russians and presidential obstruction of justice. The failure to reach a deal on immigration – from an expanded border wall to protections for DREAMers who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, but have grown up in America. Then there is Trump going off message, even on the issue of the importance of the 2018 mid-term elections. 

Democrats are torn by deep divisions, which have clouded their 2018 campaign messaging and eroded what once was a commanding leaded over Republicans. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants the campaign to center on new initiatives such as universal health care insurance, a federal jobs guarantee, tougher enforcement of anti-trust regulations and allowing the US Post Office to enter the consumer lending business. Center-left Democrats worry that isn’t the political chemistry to turn red states into blue ones. In early-state contested primaries, progressive candidates seem to be carrying the day, but the question remains whether they can win in November.

If Democrats have an ace up their sleeve, it is the number of women running for office.

If Democrats weren’t confused enough, conservative commentators have egged them on, with political cracks about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and identity politics.

The gang at FiveThirtyEight conducted an online chat about midterm election themes. Micah Cohen, the politics editor, put government corruption and Trump’s behavior at the top of his list and downplayed trade, the economy, education, Social Security and the Russian investigation. Nate Silver, the creator and editor of FiveThirtyEight, said Democrats should concentrate on health care, the Russian investigation and gun control because they are tangible issues. Senior political writer Claire Malone recommended centering on Trump administration corruption, ethical lapses and rollbacks of environmental and consumer protection.

Polling continues to show that Trump’s political base remains solid, even though there are some cracks beginning to appear among college-educated women and disaffected union workers. The same is true on the Democratic side, which has been energized by Trump policies and congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare. Republicans need to hold on to their moderates while Democrats need to hold on to their progressives. Both parties need to appeal to unaffiliated voters who think the country isn’t moving in the right direction and GOP control of all the levers of federal power hasn’t moved in the country in the right direction.

While the national stakes in the election are clear – control of the House and Senate, most congressional elections tend to boil down to local issues and candidates. But national politics does play a role. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ role in a federal government shutdown earned him an unusually well-funded Democratic opponent. Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana is facing a stiff re-election test in the face of criticism by Trump on Tester’s role in blocking his nominee to head the Veterans Administration. If Trump can pull off a verifiable deal to denuclearize North Korea, that could sway voters in the fall.

Only 48 out of 435 House seats are regarded as competitive by political experts. To regain control of the House, Democrats need to flip 25 GOP seats and not lose any of their incumbents. Democrats will likely concentrate on the 25 House districts that gave majorities to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but are held by Republicans. A 25-seat switch in the midterm election following a presidential election is not uncommon historically.

Democratic chances to regain control of the Senate, which the GOP holds by a slim 51-49 margin, are complicated because they have far more incumbents to defends. Democratic hopes go out the window if they lose seats they hold now in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. Their best hopes to gain seats are in Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota and Tennessee,

Meanwhile, congressional Republican candidates will be holding their breath about the next Trump tweetstorm and Democrats will continue debating how to approach the American electorate as a preferred alternative to GOP control. For Republicans, six months can be like infinity. For Democrats, six months can go by in a blink of the eye.


Nation’s Capital Waiting, Watching for Deadlines, Shoes to Drop

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop.   Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop. 

Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Washington, DC is full of apprehension as big events loom. More West Wing staff changes. An omnibus spending bill. President Trump’s message to Congress explaining his steel and aluminum tariffs. A pending deadline on the Iran nuclear deal. Anticipated face-to-face talks with North Korea. Possible gun violence legislation. And new developments in the Russian meddling investigation.

Last week saw a continuation of the revolving door for the Trump team and rumors persist that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may be the next to get the boot. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster have urged a more cautious approach toward Iran, which runs counter to what Trump wants. The President’s personal staff remains in flux, too.

Intensive bipartisan negotiations continue on a massive spending package, which Congress tasked itself with approving by this Friday as part of brokered deal last month to prevent another federal government shutdown. There was hope pieces of the $1.3 trillion spending measure would fall into place so it could be passed in something resembling normal order. That hope appears dashed, as disagreements persist on everything from women’s health to Trump’s border wall and from campaign finance to a major transportation project in New York and New Jersey. Negotiations are tricky because many House and Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the measure as fiscally reckless, which means it will fall to Democrats to approve it, so they have bargaining power to set the terms.

Trump’s abrupt decision to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Within 30 days of when the tariffs go into effect, Trump must tell Congress formally why he imposed them – and whether and how he may exempt some nations from the tariffs. Many congressional Republicans aren’t keen on the tariffs because of their unintended effects on other parts of the economy and their potential to start a global trade war. Trump’s top economic adviser quit after Trump announced the tariffs. The European Union and some steel-producing countries have threatened trade retaliation, either through tariffs or shifting large purchases, such as commercial aircraft, from US to other suppliers. The tit-for-tat could result in one or more countries, including the United States, filing unfair trade complaints with the World Trade Organization.

The Tillerson firing (the former head of Exxon-Mobile learned he was canned while on the toilet, according to press reports) and the shaky status of McMaster are likely linked to the May 12 deadline Trump faces on whether to extend the waiver on Iranian sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear arms deal. Trump said he reluctantly waived sanctions in January, but has sounded more bellicose since then toward Iran. He has sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who views the deal as weak. Trump also has aligned with Saudi Arabia in a conflict in Yemen that is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians, which both seek greater influence in Middle East.

Trump said he wanted a secretary of state closer to his mindset as he approaches personal negotiations with North Korea.

Leader Kim Jong-un sometime this spring. Trump chose CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, but that nomination could face trouble in the Senate as two GOP senators have already said they would oppose his confirmation. There is uneasiness that Trump and his administration may not be prepared to deal with Kim, but the talks appear on the road to happening as North Korea and Sweden, which is the American shadow voice, explore ways to find a peaceful resolution.

The Parkland, Florida school shootings sparked a vigorous, student-led national push for gun violence legislation. Florida lawmakers and GOP Governor Rick Scott approved a measure over objections from the National Rifle Association. The NRA subsequently challenged the constitutionality of one provision in the bill raising the legal age to buy long weapons from 18 to 21 years old. Trump has bounced around on what he would support, including support for arming some school teachers, but there are hints of a building bipartisan consensus in Congress to strengthen background checks before gun purchases – and possibly take further steps. For his part, Trump has asked his administration to find a way to ban bump stocks, a device used in the Las Vegas massacre to turn a semi-automatic weapon into a virtual machine gun.

Despite boastful predictions by Trump and his team that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would wrap up soon, the opposite appears true. Last week’s news included subpoenas issued to the Trump Organization for documents relating to its dealings with Russian financial interests. The firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI just before he was set to retire, which was celebrated in Trump tweets, may have added more propellant to charges of obstruction of justice. While the firing of McCabe may have been inspired as a way to discredit him as a witness against Trump, but it also removed any shackles McCabe may have felt to tell what he knows about Trump attempts to blunt the Russia meddling issue.

If that wasn’t bewildering enough, there also is the Stormy Daniels spectacle. The former porn star and her new attorney are keeping the story about a sexual encounter and hush money front and center. Trump has denied having a fling with Daniels, despite pictures of the two of them together and negotiations on Trump Organization email between his fix-it attorney and Daniels that resulted in a $130,000 hush money payment just before the 2016 election. Last week, Trump’s team baffled observers by declaring Daniels owed $20 million for violating terms of the non-disclosure agreement.

There is never a dull moment in the nation’s capital, and probably never an empty bar seat.