This week’s shiny object of distraction is two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, expressing sharp and personal criticism of President Trump. Their attacks come on top of the criticism that fellow GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is battling brain cancer, has been leveling at Mr. Trump for weeks.
A GOP civil war is catnip for the mainstream media.
From a liberal perspective, the story offers several tangible political benefits.
Republican-on-Republican violence is irresistible to the press. Fracturing the party could alienate some of the Republicans’ most reliable voters. Congressional retirements create more open seats, which expand the political map and cost the national party millions of dollars more to defend more open seats. And most important, dividing the Republican majority makes it easier for a unified Democratic minority to block conservative reforms.
It is striking to see two respected senators voluntarily announce they will not seek reelection, and do so when their party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. Many lawmakers toil long years in obscurity for years, either trapped in the minority or lacking the seniority in the majority as they wait to wield real power.
But while what Mr. Corker and Mr. Flake did was unusual, I have no doubt that political realism was also a big factor.
Mr. Flake flat out admitted that he could not win the Republican primary in Arizona next year and remain true to his beliefs.
His approval rating in Arizona took a nosedive after he chose to write a splashy book on modern conservatism that was highly critical of the president. Maybe he was naive about the backlash. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he wanted to see what the response would be to his published criticisms.
Whatever the motivation, it was clear Mr. Flake was going to lose the primary in Arizona next year. His retirement, paradoxically, actually increases the odds that the GOP will hold on to that Senate seat with a more electable alternative.
This is highly consequential.
Democrats believe they have the wind at their backs, with the national average of Mr. Trump’s public approval rating at 39 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.
They are aiming to retake control of the House, needing a net gain of at least 24 seats. GOP House retirements are making this a real possibility ” six Republican members of the very powerful House Ways and Means Committee have already said they won’t seek reelection, either by retiring or by seeking higher office.
In the Senate, the GOP clings to a narrow 52-48 majority, meaning Democrats need to net three seats to retake the majority there. That would give Democrats control of the Senate floor, committee chairmanships and judicial nominations, including any future Supreme Court nominees.
Mr. Trump’s biggest political problem right now is a frustrating lack of significant legislative accomplishments. And the holdup is the Senate. The House has achieved a lot, passing, among many other things, every single appropriations bill, an Obamacare replacement bill, a rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, a bill to end funding for sanctuary cities. All told, the House has passed more than 275 bills awaiting Senate consideration.
Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans desperately need to pass meaningful tax reform before the end of the year. The stars appear to be aligning, as the House will pass the Senate budget resolution this week which allows tax reform to be considered.
Here is where the math comes in.
Republicans need 50 votes plus the vice president to pass tax reform using the so-called reconciliation process. That means, just as was the case with health care reform, that they can only lose two Republican votes if the Democrats remain united in opposition. Would Mr. Corker, Mr. Flake and Mr. McCain team up to sink Mr. Trump’s tax reform proposal?
Republicans have been working for nearly a decade to achieve unified control the federal government.
Disunity threatens a historic opportunity to achieve big things, starting with the first significant reform of the tax code since 1986. The Republican team needs to come together with a shared sense of mission and purpose.
Tax reform unifies Republicans in a way that the Obamacare replacement effort did not, and Mr. Trump and GOP lawmakers know they need to pass something of consequence soon.
The midterms are looming. Any distraction by personal quarrels takes the eye off the ball.
Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” may be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on the web at MackOnPolitics.com.
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