In just one year, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in political fortunes for the party in power. They have lost high profile races in a light blue state (Virginia) and a dark red one (Alabama). They have failed, thus far, to pass any meaningful legislation, despite having total control of both Houses of Congress. The one bill they are likely to pass before the end of the year is garnering just 25 to 30 percent support among the electorate. Fewer Americans identify as Republican today than they did back in 2016. And, of course, President Trump’s approval ratings are mired in the mid-to-low 30’s — driven almost entirely by self-inflicted wounds, not outside events.
The shift in mood among Democrats over the last year has been as dramatic. It’s been a bit like watching someone work through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Democrats spent much of December of 2016 in a state of disbelief: Did that really happen? How did that happen? By early 2017 they had moved on to anger: Hillary ran a terrible campaign; Democrats had no message; the Obama coalition is unsustainable. By spring there was bargaining: We must not focus our attacks on Trump or his voters. We have to make peace with the white working class electorate who is anxious and angry and desperate for real change. Democratic leaders in Washington tamped down talk of impeachment and focused instead on “A Better Deal.”
Today, however, that reticence is gone. Democratic senators are openly calling for the President to resign over allegations of sexual harassment. Not one red state Democrat supported the GOP tax bill. The fear of Trump and his legions of establishment-hating voters has receded. Democrats are now living off the adrenaline and energy that comes with an awakening of their own base; a base that was disillusioned and dispirited in 2016. Anger is the most powerful GOTV force there is.
Republicans, meanwhile, are having something of a Kubler-Ross experience themselves. Some are still living in denial. They see losses in Virginia and Alabama — and underperformance of Republican candidates in House special elections in Montana, Kansas and South Carolina — as candidate or campaign specific. The President falls into this category as well. And, to be fair, he has no other campaign experience to fall back on but for the only one in which he was a candidate. As such, the motto seems to be: if it worked last year, it’ll work again. Earlier this year, Trump had a choice: try to grow the narrow base of support that got him the win in 2016, or simply cater to that base. He chose the latter. And, in turn that narrow base has gotten even smaller. Trump has done nothing to keep the reluctant Trump voters, those Republicans or independents who were wary of Trump’s style and temperament and voted for him anyway, on his side. Many of those voters who wanted to give Trump a chance to act presidential, a chance to learn the ropes, are now growing impatient and dispirited. This is why you are seeing suburban, highly educated voters swing toward the Democratic candidates.
Another group of Republicans are in the bargaining phase. They understand the existential danger that Trump poses to their Congressional majority, but they think they can outwit and outlast him. They can pass a tax bill to show their competence at legislating. They can focus on running “all politics is local” campaigns that are detached from the dysfunction of Washington. They can try to show independence from Trump. Most of these Republicans are people who haven’t lived through a wave election. Which, to be fair, is about two-thirds of the GOP conference in Congress.
Then there are those Republicans who have been in Washington for a while. They are at the acceptance phase. These are the men and women who lived through 2006 and 2008. When I talk to them — as I have this week — they are becoming more and more convinced that 2018 is shaping up to be a very, very bad year for their party. They have tried denial and bargaining in the past. They know that it doesn’t work.