For President Trump and his supporters, there is no denying that 2017 has been a phenomenal year. On every front imaginable—from the economy and foreign policy to illegal immigration and the judiciary—things have been getting better as the president fulfills many of his promises.
But 2018 should be even better.
Without question, one of the biggest blights on Trump’s first year in office was the inefficiency of the Republican Congress. For almost a full year, the Republicans on Capitol Hill—and particularly in the Senate—became notorious for infighting over the very issues they promised to address for almost a decade. They spent six months working first on efforts to repeal Obamacare. A handful of belligerent and self-interested senators scuttled the effort. They spent another six months working on tax reform, which narrowly passed in both houses, finally marking a major legislative achievement.
In the midst of all that chaos and drama, congressional Republicans seem to have forgotten why they hold (slim) majorities in the House and the Senate. And many of them have no idea why Trump is in the White House. Their amnesia and general cluelessness threaten their hold on power in the coming election year.
Remember: Trump ran on a very different platform than conventional Republicans. Where most Republicans focused on Obamacare, he homed in on immigration; where Republicans focused on taxes, Trump talked about trade. As previous Republican presidential candidates foundered on uninspiring fiscal issues, Trump drove voter enthusiasm and successful crossover appeal with key issues that have long-term implications for the very fabric of our nation.
Quite simply, he won on three issues: Immigration, trade, and infrastructure. Immigration fired up the base, while trade and infrastructure are what won him support in the Rust Belt from former Democrats or previously apathetic voters. Focusing on immigration and trade roused previously unenthusiastic voters because those issues speak to the palpable decline of our country, our culture, and our economy. These voters in Rust Belt states were the first to feel the effects of this decline and they see things that those elected to represent them have chosen to ignore. There is a reason why supporters at Trump rallies were chanting “Build the wall!” instead of “tax re-form!” Trump knew which issues would drive up enthusiasm, and he ran with all of them.
And yet, with 2017 coming to a close, the Republican Congress has yet to address any one of those three issues.
Too Much Time on Old Issues
Where is the infrastructure bill? Nowhere. Where are the immigration reforms? The revolutionaryRAISE Act, sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) and endorsed by Trump, has fallen off the political radar. While the House has approved other key immigration legislation such as Kate’s Law and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, as well as funding for Trump’s border wall, the Senate has taken no action.
Instead, the Congress has focused on the same tired old issues that establishment Republicans have touted for years: Obamacare repeal (which failed, and was only partially enacted by Trump’s executive order and then the tax bill’s repeal of the individual mandate) and tax reform (which, again, passed by the skin of its teeth).
Now there is talk, even as Trump economic advisors such as Gary Cohn want to tackle infrastructure next, congressional Republicans would prefer to take on welfare reform instead. While these are issues that Trump would support, they are not his signature and winning issues.
As such, the Republican majorities in both houses are in great peril because of their own stubbornness, selfishness, and short-sightedness. They have hijacked the Trump Train and replaced its cargo with the conventional GOP agenda that has never been able to sustain a winning national coalition.
Congressional Republicans have cast aside the key issues of immigration—which the base desperately wants handled—as well as trade and infrastructure—which could make or break the GOP’s future in the Electoral College. Trade and infrastructure, quite simply, would bring hundreds of thousands of former Rust Belt Democrats into the Republican fold. If Trump single-handedly locked down the Rust Belt in 2020—perhaps even flipping Minnesota in addition to holding Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—then the GOP would become competitive again against the Democrats’ new blue wall of the Northeast and the West Coast.
Aside from the low approval ratings for Congress, the effects of this blind rejection of the Trump agenda are telling. The latest example is the debacle of the special Senate election in Alabama; with the turnout at a measly 40 percent, Roy Moore lost because enough Republican voters stayed home and allowed Democrat Doug Jones to win the seat.
Low Republican turnout represents a sheer lack of enthusiasm for Republicans in Congress, who are ignoring the will of the voters even as they struggle to pass their own agenda. Voters in Alabama saw this race for the Senate—by far the more incompetent of the two houses of Congress—and essentially said “What’s the point? The Senate Republicans don’t get anything done anyway. And they’re not even addressing the issues that we want addressed.” This widespread decrease in enthusiasm could prove disastrous in 2018.
An Agenda More Popular Than the Man
It is no secret that Trump is the only reason many voters still remain with the Republican Party. He is the reason for the RNC’srecord-breaking fundraising over the course of 2017, far outpacing the DNC during this same period of Obama’s presidency, and leaving the current DNC in debt. Gallup polls show that he is the most popular president in modern history among Republican voters. Trump and his policies are far more popular than the old-school Republican Party’s policies, and Trump’s policies are even more popular than Trump himself. Gone away is any semblance of popularity for the Bush-era neoconservative agenda; here to stay is the national populist agenda that gave Trump the White House. Addressing Trump’s issues is clearly the best way for legislative Republican candidates to go.
It is understandable why Trump would prefer the congressional GOP take the reins on the legislative calendar of 2017. He had just assumed his first political office ever and still needed to learn the ropes, on top of dealing with many of the executive matters such as regulations and foreign policy. And given that set of circumstances, he has fulfilled many promises. His foreign policy has even drawn concessions from the New York Times, his regulatory rollbacks are hitting unprecedented levels, and he has easily ripped up bad international deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, the “Cuban Thaw,” and the Iran Deal.
But if Trump hopes to see the core of his agenda actually implemented into law, he needs complete the take over of the party in 2018. That year must become the year of the Trump agenda, just as much in Congress as it is in the White House.
Whose Party Now?
In January, Trump should meet with all 290 Republicans in the House and Senate. He needs to make this painfully clear to them—from their year of almost nothing getting done, to their abysmal approval ratings—and he needs to put his foot down. He should emphasize that immigration is important not only for all of the obvious reasons but also to prevent the importation of millions of new Democratic voters. He must emphasize that such reform has bipartisan voter support, even if it is lacking significant Democratic legislative support. He could point, for example, to the overwhelmingly high approval polls for the RAISE Act in Rust Belt states. He could make the obvious point about the bipartisan appeal of infrastructure legislation. And as NAFTA renegotiations come to an end, Congress should be ready, for the sake of the country, to craft a new deal when and if he withdraws from the old deal. Trump has easily pulled out of other bad deals with no need for a replacement (TPP), but something as big as NAFTA very well could require a replacement deal—which only Congress can do.
He needs to say: “This is my party now.”
The congressional GOP can no longer just cover their ears and turn away. They tried—and barely succeeded—to ignore the Trump agenda in favor of their own in 2017. But unless they actively want to lose the 2018 midterms to the even more incompetent Democratic Party (which would be just beyond embarrassing), and thus lose their largest congressional majority in almost a century, they must face the music: They must address the national populist agenda that elected Donald Trump, and saved the GOP from electoral extinction. When Donald Trump says “This is my party now,” their only response should be: “Yes, Mr. President. Yes, it is.”