Republicans rode into 2018 on a high; they passed a momentous tax bill (which included the repeal of the individual mandate, a major blow for Obamacare), were making significant progress in shaping the future of the federal judiciary (including Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court), and looked to have a relatively united front against a divided Democratic caucus.
Their momentum has come to a grinding halt in the first two months of the year, and the political winds look to be changing course quite drastically.
Their caucus looks irreparably divided over immigration. After campaigning on the hardliner mantra, “build a wall,” President Trump now vacillates weekly on his position, but seems to be edging closer to a compromise with Democrats. Such action would likely rely heavily on Democratic votes in the House, where some intractable Republicans are likely to balk at any deal that grants a path to citizenship. Yet with a clear need for reform, Democrats may extract far greater concessions than their minority status would imply.
The Parkland school shooting has only increased the political woes of the Republicans, as the sustained activism of students has broken the standard post-mass shooting doldrums. While some Conservatives have lashed out at corporations for breaking with the NRA, there is little doubt that the majority of Americans, including a significant majority of NRA members, see the necessity of reform. While the attendant specifics are the cause of much consternation, there is a significant amount of common ground that would make Americans safer while protecting the rights of law abiding gun owners.
Trump’s shifting positions have also vexed Republicans on this issue, and he even expressed a willingness to ‘take the guns’ from those who pose a risk (largely to themselves) because of mental health issues. He walked back these comments soon after, which is typical, but the glee on Sen. Feinstein’s face at this comment contrasted sharply with the backlash on the right.
There’s also the matter of Devin Nunes, who has infuriated both left and right with his shamelessly partisan use of his position as Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. This started with the infamous ‘Nunes Memo’, and has since escalated to him leaking the text messages of Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, drawing a sharp rebuke from the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, who leads the bipartisan investigation into Russian meddling with Warner. The leak has stoked the conspiracist fires of the fringe right, all the while making it increasingly difficult for Republicans to appeal to moderates without alienating that base.
These distractions threaten to overshadow the significant Republican legislative and policy victories of the past year. Republican leadership hoped the tax bill would be the key to their 2018 strategy, but breaking through cacophony to hammer that message home will be nearly impossible, particularly as the President continues to use his Twitter as his personal bully pulpit. They were facing an uphill battle even before that, since Trump’s election revitalized the previously stagnant Democratic base, whose sustained activism may well turn into serious political gains in the midterm elections.
Perhaps there’s a chance that Republicans can reset the debate and control the narrative, but a smart man wouldn’t bet on it.