Nearly a year after Donald Trump’s victory, both parties in Washington are still trying to figure out what it means and how best to adapt. It’s hard to say who has faced the deeper existential crisis. The Democrats lost pretty much everything; the Republicans gained, well, Trump.
The self-flagellating of the Grand Old Party, GOP, continues as it scratches around for votes for another bowl of old mutton they’re calling a viable replacement for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Boiled up by Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, two senators from the South, it has been roundly condemned by the healthcare industry as unworkable and cruel to patients. Late on Friday John McCain declared his opposition, probably killing it dead. But still they try. Such is their desperation to be seen capable of passing something. Anything.
The best the Democrats can say these days is that Trump has been giving them day-passes to his latest little club, namely the Oval Office. He even did a deal this month with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, leaders of the opposition in the Senate and House respectively, to find the money to fund the government, leaving Republican leaders twisting in he wind.
In its latest cover, Time examines their plight. “Eight months into the Trump presidency, the party looks to face its toughest odds since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984,” editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal writes. “The Democrats are in their deepest congressional rut since the class of 1946 was elected, and hold the fewest governors' mansions –15 – since 1922. Of the 98 partisan legislatures in the US, Republicans control 67. During Barack Obama's presidency, Democrats lost 970 seats in state legislatures, leaving the party's bench almost bare.”
That’s only part of the litany of woe. He also highlights their stunning youth deficit. Among all those leading the party in Congress or positioning to be its candidate for president next time around, none couldn’t qualify as your great grandparent. No offence, Bernie or Elizabeth.
But here is the real problem for both parties: America doesn’t know what it wants. The pendulum rule of electoral politics suggests that by next year – the congressional midterms – or certainly by the 2020 presidential contest, the country will have swung back to something near the old normal. The moment for "outsider" candidates promising to disrupt the status quo will have passed. Candidates offering experience and expertise – imagine! – will be back in vogue.
A first indicator of this has been the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Trump’s outreach to Chuck and Nancy, which prevented a government shutdown. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 71 per cent of Americans support the agreement which also provided funding for victims of the two recent hurricanes. And there has been uptick, for the first time, in Trump’s approval ratings too.
But then cast your eyes to Alabama where on Tuesday Republicans must decide whether to stick by Luther Strange, a former state attorney general who was appointed on an interim basis earlier this year to hold a vacant US Senate seat, or push him aside in favour of his challenger from within the party, former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore.
Fresh from his railings against North Korea at the UN – and the return railings from Kim Jong-un – Trump flew to Alabama on Friday to campaign for Strange. A risky gambit. Latest polls show Strange, all 6ft 9 of him, losing to Moore perhaps by a hefty margin. If that is what actually happens, it will mark the first major repudiation of Trump at the polls since he took office. But it will not have come from the "resistance" of the liberal left, but rather from the far right.
Were he to make it all the way to Washington–- after defeating Strange he would still face a Democrat opponent on election day – Moore would make Trump look Kennedy-esque (and Ted Cruz a kitten). This the man who in 2005 said “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” and who was suspended from the state Supreme Court last year after he ordered all Alabama judges to ignore the US Supreme Court ruling in favour of gay marriage. It was the second time he’d been booted from the Court. The first was after he installed a stone monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building, in violation of the constitution.
On the trail just in the last few days he has spoken of “reds and yellows” in America – yes he apparently meant native Americans and Asians – and warned that punishment for loose behaviour is nigh. “You think that God’s not angry that this land is a moral slum?” he asked during a visit to a church. “How much longer will it be before his judgment comes?”
He and his supporters argue that while Trump’s heart may have been in the right place he is falling under the spell of the Washington establishment. Of Chuck and Nancy and also Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate. As Sarah Palin put it, the swamp is “trying to hijack this presidency”. Yes Palin is not with Strange and therefore Trump. She is all out for Moore.
Alabama is not America, that’s for sure. But this is confusing, nonetheless, for all of us and for the leaders of the two parties. Support for Trump’s deal with the Democrats suggests an appetite for less extremism in Washington not more. But a Moore victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary would send an entirely different message: that Trump’s time in the Oval Office is but the beginning of a nationalist and populist wave in America. That it’s barely got started. In other words, for those not exactly enamoured of Trump: you ain’t seen nothing yet.
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