Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Ron Brownstein has a pretty good analysis of the Republicans’ electoral strategy, but I think he’s missing one important ingredient. He identifies two basic decisions that the Republicans have already taken that will have a major impact on the midterms and that will be very difficult to compensate for over the course of the campaigns.

The first has been to align more closely with Trump even as questions have mounted about both his basic fitness for the presidency and the potential legal exposure that he and his inner circle might face in the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. The second has been to pursue a policy agenda, on issues from taxes to health care to the environment, aimed almost entirely at the preferences of their party’s conservative base, with strikingly few concessions to any voices or interests beyond their core coalition.

Before November, the GOP might modulate each of these choices. But Republicans have engraved the fundamental outline of each direction so deeply over the past year that they are unlikely to be significantly altered.

The decisions to increasingly lock arms with Trump and to pursue such a partisan agenda reflect the same political calculation. On each front, Republicans are placing the highest priority on maximizing unity and enthusiasm among their base voters — even at the price of infuriating and energizing Democrats, and antagonizing more swing voters — especially suburban college-educated whites. For voters anywhere on the continuum from ambivalent to alarmed about Trump, congressional Republicans are now sending a clear signal that they are far more inclined to empower than to constrain him.

I think all of that is accurate. Yet, what it seems to miss is that the Republicans are looking to achieve as much as they can while they have their majorities rather than trimming their sails in the effort to maintain their majorities. This should be familiar, as it’s precisely what the Democrats did in 2009 and 2010. And the Democrats might have hoped back then that they’d be rewarded by their base with a lot of support and enthusiasm in the 2010 midterms, but the eventual result was that the opposition was more mobilized by a very wide margin. It turned out that doing things like vastly expanding access to health care after decades of futility caused the base to moan about the details and be complacent about the accomplishment. Doing what you promised isn’t as good of a vote-getter as being in the minority while your party is getting rolled by the opposition.

It didn’t help that the Democrats didn’t act like they were proud of their achievements or in love with their president, so as a general matter I don’t think it would help the GOP much to distance themselves from their record or their president. And it would be incorrect to say that the Democrats plunged ahead in 2009 and 2010 without any regard for self-preservation. They hoped that they would do well in the midterms and a lot of that hope was justifiable. Likewise, I don’t think the Republicans are consciously throwing their majorities away. Instead, they’ve made the decision that they’re going to get everything they can now, and let the cards fall where they may.

Where Brownstein is unambiguously correct is that the GOP is acting in an almost heedless manner in their drive to advance their agenda. And one of the main reasons why this behavior is going to be a bigger problem for them this year than last year is that they’ve reached a point now where they actually need to get Democratic votes. Last year, they pushed everything through a dual budget reconciliation process that flamed out badly on Obamacare repeal and barely worked for their “tax reform.” Nothing else was accomplished legislatively and now they’re on the verge of a government shutdown because of their inability to pivot and deal with the Senate Democrats. Eventually, some kind of deals will be made to keep the government operating, but unless the Republicans adopt a bipartisan legislative agenda for the rest of the year, they will not be getting any more legislative wins. Instead, they’ll be left sputtering about the obstructionist Democrats.

If they were rational, they’d see that they’ve pressed their advantage as far as it can go and make the pivot, but they’re not inclined that way. So, they won’t get out of the trap they’re in and they’ll probably lose their majorities in both chambers of Congress. And I think this would be the case even without considering the president’s erratic behavior or his coming legal problems.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at