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Trump's Grand Old Party | The World Weekly

On January 20, 2018, the US federal government shut down for the first time since 2013. Forty-four Democratic Senators and five of their Republican colleagues voted against a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government until February 16. “Schumer shutdown” trended on Twitter, with some help from Russian trolls, as Republicans firmly placed the blame at the door of Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The question of immigration underpinned the shutdown. A policy called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) provided temporary protection to around 700,000 ‘dreamers’ who arrived illegally in the USA as children. President Donald Trump rescinded this Obama-era measure in September 2017, with protections officially set to end in March 2018.

The majority of Democrats made their support for the government funding bill contingent on DACA’s renewal. President Trump provided little clarity in negotiations. Supportive statements from the president about DACA were reportedly followed by immigration hawks in the White House counselling him to reject moderate compromises. “I think he’s got a good understanding of what will sell, and every time we have a proposal, it is only yanked back by staff members,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Three days after it started, the government shutdown ended. In exchange for an agreement to have an “open and fair” debate on DACA, Democrats largely supported a resolution to fund the federal government until February 8. Liberal activists were outraged that the Democrats ceded ground without protecting dreamers. Republicans claimed victory.

Polls presented a more nuanced picture. A January CNN/SRS poll found that 84% of respondents thought the government should continue DACA. This opinion fed into perceptions of the shutdown. A Public Policy Polling poll found majority disapproval for Republicans blocking dreamer protections, and ultimately 52% thought President Trump and Congressional Republicans were to blame for the shutdown.

Republican Congressmen are highly divided on immigration. House Speaker Paul Ryan was not part of the deal to debate DACA, and remains committed to the ‘Hastert Rule’ that would keep an immigration bill out of the House of Representatives without majority support of Republican members.

Meanwhile, Democrats have hardened their negotiating position. Senator Schumer declared that President Trump’s border wall with Mexico was “off the table.” 

As the majority party in both chambers of Congress, Republicans would arguably struggle to escape political damage from a failure to resolve this emotive issue. “The situation will be bad for the GOP if the Senate passes a DACA bill, the House doesn’t, and deportations start in the months before the midterms,” tweeted MSNBC justice and security analyst Matthew Miller.

Conservative goals

The Republican Party is in a period of flux. “Supporting Donald is like being shot in the head,” said Senator Lindsey Graham in a talk-show appearance in March 2016. This barely restrained terror at Donald Trump’s candidacy was shared by many establishment figures in the Republican presidential primaries, lining up in media appearances to lambast Mr. Trump as unsuitable for the White House.

Yet the Trump administration has taken up many conservative causes. A conservative judge has been appointed to the US Supreme Court, environmental regulations have been rolled back, and December 2017 saw the passage of the tax reform long demanded by corporate donors to the Republican Party.

Evangelical Christian appointees have reportedly been very active within the health department, with new protections laid out last week for health workers who opt out of abortion and other procedures on moral or religious grounds. “The most pro-life president in American history,” declared Vice-President Mike Pence as he introduced President Trump at an anti-abortion rally this week.  

These policy successes reassured many conservatives. “He has delivered more than any president in my lifetime,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told Politico. “Whenever the policy stops, and his administration reverts to just personality, that’s where I believe the president will be in trouble.”

The Family Research Council is a Christian conservative lobbying group. Its views, such as depicting homosexuality as “harmful” to society, have generated significant controversy.

Nevertheless, Mr. Trump’s approach to governance has been criticised by some Republicans in Congress. Last week, Republican Senator Jeff Flake attacked the president’s treatment of the media. “The enemy of the people was how the president of the United States called the free press in 2017,” said the senator, “Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies.”

Establishment Republicans have increasingly sought to control the direction of the party. Steve Bannon’s public estrangement from President Trump in recent weeks has fed hopes of pulling the party away from the former White House Chief Strategist’s nationalist, economic populism, and back to traditional, “issues-focused” conservatism.

Rumours have swirled around Washington that Mitt Romney, 2012 Republican presidential nominee and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, could run for the Utah Senate seat left vacant when Orrin Hatch retires before the 2018 midterms. “Romney opens up the discussion, illustrating the fight for the soul of a fractured party,” Peter Wehner, veteran of three Republican administrations and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, told The Washington Post.

Republican figures aligned with Mr. Trump contend that their political base want fresh, outsider leadership unblemished by ties to the political establishment.

Some see Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as inherent in modern Republicanism. “In the 1950s, Movement Conservatives undermined the popular liberal consensus, insisting that an activist government would redistribute wealth from hardworking white people to lazy people of colour, women, and unionised workers,” Heather Cox Richardson, professor of History at Boston College, told The World Weekly, “What is different in Trump is that he has brought the dog-whistles into the open.”

Others believe core conservative principles have been abandoned. Some Republicans have abandoned the party’s traditional support for the intelligence services, questioning the objectivity of the FBI's investigation into Mr. Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. This week several House Republicans contended that there was a “secret society” within the FBI working to undermine the president. “The party and Trump apologists who brandish the conservative moniker, we fear, have lost their way,” wrote conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin.

‘The blue wave’

Democrats are increasingly confident for the 2018 midterm elections in November. Sweeping victories in several state elections, and Democrat Doug Jones’s triumph in the special senate race in traditionally conservative Alabama have suggested that the Democratic electoral base is energised for voting.

Earlier in January a Democrat won a Wisconsin state senate seat held by the Republicans since 2000. “Playing defence at this point, Republicans have to do whatever they can to combat an incoming blue wave,” Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the progressive-leaning Centre for American Progress, told TWW, “The question people are asking now is not whether it will be bad but how bad it will be.”

Nevertheless, Republicans enjoy significant mathematical advantages. Only eight Republican senate seats, compared to 25 in the Democratic caucus, are up for re-election. In the House, redrawing of congressional boundaries by Republican-dominated state legislatures in 2012 cut down on the number of competitive seats for Democrats. Statistical analysis firm FiveThirtyEight’s latest generic Congressional ballot aggregator showed that the Democrats’ lead has tightened to 7% - down from 12% in late December.

Republican leaders plan to campaign on economic successes. The US economy has surged in recent months, with GDP up 3.2% in the third quarter of 2017 and unemployment down to 4.1%. Messaging will particularly focus on the Republican tax plan, stressing the tax cuts for the middle class set to start next month – one Republican dubbed it the “Great American Comeback.” “While many Republican accomplishments appeal to the conservative base, more money in people’s pockets appeals to everyone,” says Jon McHenry, Republican pollster, to TWW. 

Democrats maintain that the tax plan is a “scam,” arguing that the wealthy receive the lion's share of the benefits.

In light of the president's historically low approval numbers, Republicans are worried that their party is not being credited enough for this economic vitality. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found 60% of respondents viewed the economy as “good or excellent” but only 40% gave credit to Mr. Trump – 50% linked it to former President Barack Obama.

Whether disapproval for Mr. Trump or enthusiasm for Republican policy guides their political base, 2018 is sure to be a pivotal year for the ‘Grand Old Party.’

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