When Roy Moore recently lost the Alabama special election for the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, analysts from all over the political spectrum were quick to place blame. Some observers cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for refusing to throw his support and the resources of the National Republican Senatorial Committee behind Moore. Other observers have suggested that the real culprit was Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump, because Bannon endorsed Moore in his run against the more mainstream Republican Luther Strange, leaving conservative Alabamans with no sensible or worthy candidate for whom to vote in the general election. Still others have blamed Trump himself.
An example of the latter was The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who declared that the election was “a stunning rebuke of an insecure president whose lack of a moral and philosophical core has diminished the office and the nation he leads.” Various others in his camp claimed that Trump has created a political environment so toxic to other Republicans and so motivating to “the Resistance” that the entire GOP is now in serious trouble.
On the saner side of the political aisle, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review (and one of his magazine’s few writers who can see Trump reasonably objectively), offered a subtler and more nuanced critique, suggesting that Trump is the mirror image of former President Barack Obama. According to Lowry, both men created a new political style which worked for them but could not be transferred to others in their party. “No one,” Lowry wrote, “could replicate Obama’s model, and so far, no has shown any signs of successfully adapting to, let alone copying, Trump’s.”
While Capehart makes it clear that he might need to spend a little time in a nice, padded room, Lowry makes a reasonable point. It is true that the Trump era has been hard on Republicans running for office, and it looks like it might get harder still, as next year’s midterm election does not currently hold a great deal of promise for the struggling GOP. At the same time, Lowry ignores the key difference between Trump and his predecessor and thus the key reason to believe that Trump’s effect on his party’s fortunes is likely to be less severe and less damaging than most observers seem to believe.
Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 as the harbinger of “hope and change.” By promising nothing and everything at once, he was a polymorphic shapeshifter who offered nothing more specific than to stop the rise of the oceans and heal a damaged planet. In the Democratic primary, he ran against the inevitable and “supremely qualified” policy wonk, Hillary Clinton, whom he destroyed handily with his ephemeral nothingness.
Once in office, though, Obama and the Democratic Congress passed legislation that would radically alter the political landscape — a massive stimulus bill, health care reform, financial services reform, etc. The candidate who promised nothing quickly became the president who delivered everything, or at least a great many of his progressive base’s deepest desires. When voters heartily rejected his party in the 2010 midterm, they did so because they bristled at and detested the legislative actions they had taken. Obama had charisma enough to survive the electorate’s rejection of his agenda, but his fellow partisans did not.
By contrast, Donald Trump ran for president on a very specific and very aggressive agenda. He promised to build a wall and halt illegal immigration. He promised to cut taxes and regulations dramatically. He promised to repeal Obamacare and to reform the health care system using market principles.
Once in office, though, Trump’s agenda was stymied by his own party. Unlike the Democratic Congress, which provided the charisma-rich, policy-free president with an unpopular agenda, the Republican Congress took their president’s popular agenda and replaced it with … well … nothing. No wall. No repeal. No tax cuts (not officially, not yet). Zip. Zero. Squadoosh.
If you want to know why Mitch McConnell is to blame for the stunning loss in Alabama, all you have to do is look at what the Congress has accomplished this year. It’s not about funding or lack of support for a fellow Republican. It’s about the fact that the American people gave the GOP control of ALL of the levers of power in Washington, and the Republicans did nothing with that control. In 2008 and 2012, the American people voted for Barack Obama because they wanted “change.” In 2016, the American people voted for Donald Trump because they wanted it to “change back.” And the Republicans in Congress ignored their mandate and sat on their hands.
Steve Bannon’s role in the loss is self-evident. Like the voters, he is frustrated with the lack of accomplishments in the 115th Congress. Unlike the voters — at least those who showed up to the polls in Alabama the other night — he has allowed his frustration to become despair and therefore backed a man who was clearly unfit for high office. Bannon will either learn from his mistake and back better candidates in the future, or he’ll continue to aid the Democrats, however unwittingly.
As for President Trump, his only sin is having created expectations that the Congress is clearly unable to meet. The Left and the media enjoy calling him a liar and a fraud. But the truth is that he’s one of the very few politicians in recent memory who came to town with an agenda and set about trying to get things done. Going forward, Republicans will either help him accomplish those goals or they will see a great many more “red” seats turn “blue.”
Steve Soukup is the vice president and publisher of The Political Forum, a research group that provides consulting services to the institutional investment community with an emphasis on economic, social and political events.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.