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August 20th, 2018

Insight

Politics Makes for Strange Bedfellows, Or So Trump Learns The Hard Way In Alabama

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Sept. 28, 2017

A little perspective as we try to make sense of an Alabama Senate special election in which the populist upstart, Judge Roy Moore, unseated the establishment choice, Republican Sen. Luther Strange (appointed to the seat after Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General).

1. It's easy to get carried away with special elections. The turnout in Alabama will turn out to be maybe one-seventh or one-eighth of the state's 3.3 million registered voters (in an earlier round of GOP voting a month ago, only 425,000 Alabamians voted - one-third the number of votes Trump received last November). A bigger turnout and Strange maybe carries the day (stranger things have happened).

Besides, not every special election is a national referendum. You might remember such placeholders as Paul Kirk (he replaced Ted Kennedy in September 2009), or Mo Cowan, who took over for John Kerry when he was elevated to Secretary of State at the start of the second term of the Obama Administration (Cowan's promise, at the beginning of his 19-week stay in Washington: "This is going to be a very short political career.")

2. But the Alabama vote is different in at least one important regard: for once, a newly elected president found himself at odds with the movement that brought him to office.

Trump supported Strange (more great advice from Mitch McConnell). Moore, on other hand, ran with the blessing of the likes of Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage. Thus we had the odd spectacle of Trump, the tip of the populist spear, in effect running against the long arc of Brexit and "Make America Great Again".

In Alabama, Trump, the man, lost to Trumpism, the movement. The message to the Trump White House: the same four-word question that Samuel F.B. Morse dispatched from the U.S. Capitol Hill in 1844.

Think back over the course of the last three presidencies, each of which managed to last two terms but also managed to lose control of both chambers of Congress.

Barack Obama and Obamaism came under attack from Republicans from day one of his presidency. However, the attacks were partisan, not intraparty. Obama rarely found himself in the middle of Democratic primary squabbles.

There may not have been a policy definition for the George W. Bush presidency. "Bushism" pertained to the man's twisting of the English language, not his conservative bent.

But how many times did 43 wind up on the losing side in a Republican primary?

Ok, there's one example: the 2010 Texas gubernatorial steel-cage match between Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The Bush political machine preferred Hutchinson, a sitting U.S. Senator, to Perry, a sitting governor. But that was more about personal beefs - Perry bull-rushed the Bush family out of the governor's mansion and years later trashed his presidential credentials - than philosophical beliefs.

As for Bill Clinton, the same dynamic as Obama: Republicans exploited a weakness (tired Democratic rule of Congress). The Democratic infighting would appear years later - ironically, that was Hillary Clinton's bill to pay in presidential primaries.

3. For all the attention given to Alabama, head north in SEC Country to Tennessee, where GOP Sen. Bob Corker has announced his retirement next year.

Sure, Corker promised way back in 2006, as a newbie Senate candidate, that he wouldn't seek a third six-year term. So credit the man for keeping his word.

But also noticeable, as in Alabama: the presence of Steve Bannon recruiting a populist challenger to Corker - and letting the media know what GOP scalps he wants (the answer, in addition to Strange and Corker: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, Mississippi Sen. Wicker. Reportedly, they're all on Bannon's list.)

Is Corker tired of Washington, tired of gridlock, tired of Trump? Or did he choose to avoid a clash with Trumpism next year?

  1. Something for Trump to ponder as he travels to Indianapolis and a big speech rolling out his tax reform proposal: what's best for his long-term presidential prospects?

There are two ways to read the latest Republican setback on Obamacare repeal: either Kentucky's public schools are a disgrace and Senate Majority Leader McConnell - proud graduate of Louisville's DuPont Manual High School, the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky Law School - can't count to 50; or, 52 GOP Senate seats does make for a working majority in this Congress.

A numerical majority, yes.

But not a working majority in that McConnell repeatedly has lost three or members of his caucus on Obamacare votes.

How to remedy this? Why, add numbers, of course. That means going after vulnerable Democratic senators, which Trump wisely is doing by linking red-state Democrats to tax reform (Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri).

But come November 2018, what's the better strategy for building upon the fragile majority? Would Flake and Heller make stronger general-election candidates a year, or should Trump trust the November election - and ultimately his agenda - to Trumpism acolytes?

If Bannon succeeds in ousting the Republican incumbents, is the GOP looking at a repeat of 2010 and the mixed record of upstart Tea Party candidates?

The funny thing about those whose names are synonymous with political movements: their pixie dust doesn't always rub off on their followers. In two midterm elections, Obama tried to sell congressional Democratic candidates as keepers of his progressive flame. That approach flamed out: Democratic suffered horribly at congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative levels.

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But also noticeable, as in Alabama: the presence of Steve Bannon recruiting a populist challenger to Corker - and letting the media know what GOP scalps he wants (the answer, in addition to Strange and Corker: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, Mississippi Sen. Wicker. Reportedly, they're all on Bannon's list.)

Is Corker tired of Washington, tired of gridlock, tired of Trump? Or did he choose to avoid a clash with Trumpism next year?

  1. Something for Trump to ponder as he travels to Indianapolis and a big speech rolling out his tax reform proposal: what's best for his long-term presidential prospects?

There are two ways to read the latest Republican setback on Obamacare repeal: either Kentucky's public schools are a disgrace and Senate Majority Leader McConnell - proud graduate of Louisville's DuPont Manual High School, the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky Law School - can't count to 50; or, 52 GOP Senate seats does make for a working majority in this Congress.

A numerical majority, yes.

But not a working majority in that McConnell repeatedly has lost three or members of his caucus on Obamacare votes.

How to remedy this? Why, add numbers, of course. That means going after vulnerable Democratic senators, which Trump wisely is doing by linking red-state Democrats to tax reform (Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri).

But come November 2018, what's the better strategy for building upon the fragile majority? Would Flake and Heller make stronger general-election candidates a year, or should Trump trust the November election - and ultimately his agenda - to Trumpism acolytes?

If Bannon succeeds in ousting the Republican incumbents, is the GOP looking at a repeat of 2010 and the mixed record of upstart Tea Party candidates?

The funny thing about those whose names are synonymous with political movements: their pixie dust doesn't always rub off on their followers. In two midterm elections, Obama tried to sell congressional Democratic candidates as keepers of his progressive flame. That approach flamed out: Democratic suffered horribly at congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative levels.

Not to overreact after one verdict, but the outcome in Alabama does raise questions as to this President's ability to transfer his brand. Trump tried to carry a candidate to victory. Trumpism proved to be more powerful than the man who harnessed it.

As Morse typed: "what hath G0D wrought?"

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.

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