What’s truly astounding about Democrat Conor Lamb’s performance Tuesday night in a district Donald Trump won by 20 points is that it isn’t novel at all.
Lamb did 20 points better in PA-18 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 and 17 points better than Barack Obama did there back in 2012. That’s impressive. What’s even more impressive is if you look across 20 special elections held so far in 2018, mostly for state legislative seats, and discover that Democrats have done, on average, 24 points better than Clinton and 12 points better than Obama.
Today the political class has started an autopsy of the Pennsylvania race — assessing Lamb’s strength as a candidate and his Republican opponent Rick Saccone’s relative weaknesses. This same cycle has played out before this year: The morning after a race, we pick it apart to see what happened. It’s an understandable urge.
But these races aren’t happening in isolation. The same dynamics are playing out over and over. And Republicans, especially, are desperately trying to interpret events as isolated campaigns gone awry. Instead of being terrified for scandal-free GOP incumbents holding down seats that Trump won by mere single digits, they’re staying the course. It’s one of the signature aspects of the Republican Party in recent years — they resolutely refuse to act like they’re afraid of anything.
This all might be good news for Democrats and political pros, but it’s a terrible sign for America.
The Trump-era GOP’s bizarre synthesis
Right up until Election Day 2016, Trump and congressional Republicans had a deeply uneasy relationship.
On the one hand, Trump viewed the overarching political philosophy of the GOP with barely concealed disdain and mused aloud as a candidate about the merits of universal health care and taxing the rich while promising to preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from cuts.
He suggested he’d be tougher on the banks than Clinton and vowed to preserve basic clean air and clean water protections even while rolling back Obama’s actions on climate change. Paired with an amped-up and heavily racialized version of cultural conservatism, this apparent ideological heterodoxy helped Trump score unprecedented success with working-class white voters.
And make no mistake — Trump was seen by the voters as the most moderate GOP nominee since Gerald Ford, positioned as slightly closer to the center than Bill Clinton in 1992.
At the same time, congressional Republicans viewed Trump as a dangerous figure, with nearly one-third of the Senate GOP caucus refusing to commit to voting for him and House Speaker Paul Ryan famously proclaiming in October 2016 that he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump.
Despite the internal tension and the 2-point popular vote loss, Trump emerged victorious in 2016; the way was clear for a potential juggernaut moving forward. If the GOP could adopt Trump’s ideological synthesis while backing away from his most disreputable personal qualities, they’d be positioned to do extremely well.
But instead, they’ve done the opposite. Trump behaves as flagrantly inappropriately as ever, but now the entire party is complicit in it. In exchange, they’ve gotten Trump to largely drop his eclectic policy approach in favor of a less popular hard-right agenda. And now they’re prepared to lose everywhere.
America needs the GOP to pull out of the tailspin
That Republicans manage to be doing so poorly with the economy humming along nicely is a godsend to Democratic Party operatives and political pros. But the foundation of that political success is a substantive disaster for the country.
On a policy level, the Trump-era GOP is pushing unpopular policies on all fronts, from the looming deportation of DREAMers to health care executive actions that are driving up premiums to a rollback net neutrality to the dismantling of consumer financial protection rules. These are enormously harmful to the short-term interests of millions of people and to the long-term interests of nearly the entire country.
At the same time, Trump continues to act like a maniac — just this week, he fired the secretary of state over Twitter, deployed inappropriate political rhetoric at an official speech to active-duty Marines, and denied Russian culpability for assassinations carried out on British soil — and it’s only Wednesday.
At the same time, he’s enmeshed in an unprecedented level of personal corruption; his business enterprises are set up as perfect vehicles for interest groups seeking favors from the government to line his pockets with cash. And the growing Stormy Daniels scandal suggests a whole new dimension of possible corruption and lawbreaking over and above the basic financial conflicts of interest and the shenanigans with the Russians.
The American system, fundamentally, is meant to run more on prudence and separation of powers than on relentless partisan warfare. Congressional Republicans are supposed to see that Trump’s corruption and aberrant behavior are unpopular and do what they can to check him, while Trump is supposed to see that the GOP policy agenda is extreme and unpopular and do what he can to trim its sails. If they did that, the fundamentally benign economic and international climate might assert itself and they’d win the midterms.
Instead, Trump and congressional Republicans are acting like Thelma and Louise holding hands as they drive the car off the cliff.
The special election results out of Pennsylvania and elsewhere are a welcome reminder that there really are consequences for political malpractice. But the worry has to be that the longer we stay on this path, the higher the chances are that we’ll all end up paying the price.