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White House needs an attitude adjustment after midterms

November 29, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Jan. 3, everything will change for the Trump White House.

The day the administration did not want to come will finally arrive.

Instead of congressional Democrats existing as a minor irritant, they will now have real power. With their takeover of the House, Democrats will be able to control the flow of legislation on the floor, run the oversight committees, and launch relentless investigations of the administration armed with subpoena power.

This will be miserable for President Trump, for his West Wing staff, for his Cabinet, and for his family.

Legal bills will pile up. The pressure and stress will be considerable. It will be chaotic. And it will last for two long years.

The question facing the White House is whether they need to change their approach in the new Washington.

Will their current approach lead to electoral success in 2020, or is a change in course necessary?

First, the White House should calmly and soberly analyze the midterm returns.

Republicans were soundly defeated. Avoiding this conclusion is delusional. Losing 40 House seats is a result no Republican can spin. The GOP gained Senate seats for one reason: The party had the most advantageous electoral map for either party since the direct election of senators was first introduced. When we look back on 2018, Republicans will lament that they only picked up a net two Senate seats, when four and even five seats were within reach.

From a policy perspective, President Trump has done many good things and has received very little credit. His administration’s regulatory policy, when coupled with the historic tax cut, has produced a very strong economy, with wages rising, consumer confidence near record highs, economic growth above 3 percent, and many encouraging macro- and microeconomic trends.

The Trump administration has begun the urgently needed rebuilding of our military, while overseeing the decimation of Islamic State. We have stood strong with our ally Israel and smartly and effectively isolated Iran. Mr. Trump’s unconventional diplomacy with North Korea has at least brought a calmer period where nuclear war now seems unimaginable.

Senate Republicans have confirmed conservative judges at a record pace, reshaping the federal judiciary with constitutionalist judges. Mr. Trump’s most lasting accomplishment may well be saving the judiciary for a generation.

These are real accomplishments and they deserve praise.

But voters also wanted to send a message to the White House, and the president and his team need to hear it.

The suburbs are in full-scale revolt from Mr. Trump’s GOP. The gender gap is growing. Republicans are wholly incoherent on health care policy, and Democrats effectively used the issue as bludgeon. As a party, the GOP must urgently address these political challenges.

So here is some sincere advice for the Trump White House in the new era of divided government.

First, a little humility would go a long way. There’s a fine line between accurately detailing your record and losing credibility by going too far. Mr. Trump tends to use language that overstates his case, when the facts alone are more than adequate.

Second, divided government may be miserable, but it can also be productive. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell often points out, many major reforms come in periods of divided government. The reason for this is that both parties are invested in the outcome.

The president should look for areas of real consensus as an opportunity to move a bipartisan legislative agenda in the new Congress. The most obvious areas include criminal justice reform (if the First Step Act does not pass during the lame-duck period), infrastructure and drug pricing. Signing into law any legislation in these areas would be both good policy and good politics.

Third, the Trump White House must find ways to work constructively with congressional Democrats. Being at war all the time is a race to the bottom and will not expand the Trump coalition. Everyone in Congress is there to serve the country. Appealing to patriotism and working collegially and in a spirit of friendship and collaboration will lead to positive outcomes that voters will applaud.

Mr. Trump and his team may instinctively resist working with Democrats as they focus on investigations. A better approach would be to isolate those issues and focus instead on the business of the country.

Fourth, voters will be looking at the president and presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to see which side is more reasonable. The side that appears more extreme will pay a political cost. This contrast will dominate all of 2019. Part of the reason Mr. Trump’s approval ratings in his first two years were historically low was that he did not have a high-profile opponent. Now he will. Eventually, that opponent will become the Democratic nominee for president.

Winning re-election for Mr. Trump will require that a clear majority determine that the U.S. is headed in the right direction and that he deserves four more years in office. The White House has a lot of work to do to improve its position, and that needs to be the constant focus.

Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.

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