Even if you think Republican leaders in Congress have shown no spine in responding to President Donald Trump’s more outrageous and inappropriate comments, you ought to be willing to acknowledge that GOP legislators are caught in a no-win situation.
It’s always tempting to tell incumbents of an unpopular president’s party to criticize their own party leader as a way to survive a midterm wave. But that strategy rarely works in competitive congressional districts when the political environment is as bad as it is for Republicans today.
Repeatedly criticizing your own party’s president undermines him, makes his party look divided and ineffective, and risks alienating the party’s grass roots, many of whom still support him.
At the same time, appearing to be an apologist for an unpopular president, particularly one as unhinged as Trump, also isn’t a winning strategy for most vulnerable Republicans.
A numbers game
Democrats faced a similar — but not identical — quandary in the late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton was being less than truthful about his behavior in the Oval Office.
Few Democrats rushed to criticize him because he remained relatively popular and they didn’t want to undermine him or their party’s prospects in the 1998 midterms.
Of course, Trump is no Clinton. Bill Clinton, that is.
Clinton’s job approval ratings stood at 59 percent in a Jan. 6-7, 1998, Gallup survey and at 66 percent in the same poll from Feb. 13 to 15, 1998.
Among independents, a remarkable 60 percent approved of his job performance in that early January poll and a stunning 67 percent in the mid-February survey.
Trump wishes he had those numbers.
Instead, his approval rating now stands at 40 percent, according to Gallup’s most recent weekly average.
In most reputable national surveys, he stands somewhere between 37 percent and 42 percent, depending on the day and the pollster, and his numbers among independents are terrible.
To be sure, comparisons between Trump and Bill Clinton only go so far.
Since the birth of the party system, congressional leaders and White Houses have cajoled, promised, threatened and even punished members of Congress who failed to toe the party line.
But Trump has gone well beyond that in publicly humiliating critics, especially those from his own party.
Given all of that, and the GOP base’s continued strong support for the president, it’s easy to understand why many Republican members of Congress would rather not talk about Trump’s daily controversies, even if it means running away from reporters. But that tactic doesn’t change their electoral equations.
Most congressional Republicans in tough districts won’t be able to survive merely by laying low. At least not if and when an electoral wave hits.
Some, like Reps. Lee Zeldin and John J. Faso of New York and Leonard Lance of New Jersey, surely hope their votes against the GOP tax bill will inoculate them. After all, they can demonstrate they sided with their constituents and against the president in opposing the legislation, which punishes voters from high-tax states.
But voters may have a different perspective. They may realize those “no” votes by Zeldin, Faso and Lance did not stop the tax bill from passing and the only way to stop future Republican mistakes would be to turn the chamber over to the Democrats. And the only way to achieve that is to vote against House Republicans.
So here is the GOP’s Catch-22.
Had Zeldin, Faso and Lance made a bigger stink about the bill and Trump’s overall behavior, they would have risked alienating base GOP voters. But since they didn’t raise a ruckus about Trump’s overall performance, they will be viewed by Trump’s critics as defenders of the president.
GOP insiders believe that some Republicans from competitive districts — Reps. David Valadao of California and John Katko of New York, for example — are doing enough to swim against the wave. But for others, the challenge will be too great.
While voters bemoan partisanship, most members of Congress have spent their entire lives in one party and see American politics through a partisan lens.
They are comfortable with that perspective, and with the personal relationships built with colleagues over the years.
This helps explain why members of Congress prefer to stick with their party — and their president.
None of this is meant to excuse the deafening silence coming from most House and Senate Republicans at the all-too-frequent lunacy emanating from the White House and from the president’s allies.
Nor does it alter the political reality that the fine line that some GOP members are trying to walk this midterm year is so narrow and tricky that it is essentially unwalkable.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2018.