“This is coming, this is real,” Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, said recently about the female-fueled wave of liberal energy.
Mr. Trump’s remarks illustrated a broader problem: Republican congressional leaders and strategists have pleaded with lawmakers and candidates to stay focused on economic growth and December’s tax cuts, a message they hope will be their salvation before the elections in November. But that may be little more than fantasy in a campaign that will turn more on the president’s conduct than any policy issue.
His comments on Friday, the first he had offered since images emerged of one of Mr. Porter’s former wives bearing a black eye, were the culmination of a week’s worth of politically ill-advised steps that suggest that the president and his lieutenants cannot stop themselves from blunting positive political momentum. By the weekend, Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address, strong employment and wage figures as well as the onset of tax cuts seemed washed away by the latest White House controversy.
The frustration in the Republican political class is bursting forward.
“For members or anybody else who cares about keeping control of Congress, if you find yourself talking about anything but the middle-class tax cut, shut up and stop talking,” fumed Corry Bliss, who runs the primary House Republican “super PAC,” the Congressional Leadership Fund. “Any time spent on TV talking about anything but how we’re helping the middle class is a waste of time and does nothing to help us win in 2018.”
Republicans have grown accustomed to the president’s lack of discipline and inability to reliably carry a message. But operatives overseeing the midterm effort and some lawmakers facing difficult re-elections are growing more alarmed that Mr. Trump’s fixation on the Russia inquiry, personal slights and personality clashes inside and outside his White House are only encouraging his congressional and conservative news media allies to swerve off message.
The party has finally gotten some good signs. The president’s approval ratings have been inching up in recent polling, fewer voters are indicating a preference for a Democratic Congress and some polls show Mr. Trump starting to get more credit for the booming economy than former President Barack Obama.
But even as voters begin to see more take-home pay, companies add jobs and employees receive bonuses, their votes are not necessarily going to drift to the Republicans in November. Many Americans are still uncertain that they will benefit from the tax measure, Mr. Bliss conceded. He cited a wave of private polling and focus groups that his organization has conducted this year revealing much of the electorate to be skeptical that they would receive a tax cut from the bill, which was signed into law in December.
That is in part because of what mainstream Republicans describe as a destructive cycle of incentives: Mr. Trump reacts to Fox News segments about the Russia investigation or another controversy, encouraging more such coverage and prompting House conservatives from largely safe seats to make their own incendiary comments, which win them television invitations and attention from the president. Such notoriety might help those lawmakers in their deep red districts, but they do nothing for the party’s overall political standing.
“These guys are performing for the president when they go on TV,” said Jason Roe, a longtime Republican strategist who is consulting on a series of at-risk House districts in California.
Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a first-term Republican who is one of Mr. Trump’s most visible champions outside the White House staff, all but said as much.
Mr. Gaetz, who used the State of the Union speech to snag a selfie with Mr. Trump in the House chamber, has said the president is “about as popular in my district as oxygen.” He acknowledged that the tax bill was far more politically urgent than arguments about Russia and conceded that his on-air denunciations of Mr. Mueller served no electoral purpose. But for good measure, he said, he has been urging colleagues to warn voters in 2018 that Democrats could impeach Mr. Trump.
He also boasted that he had found a particular audience for his cable news forays: Mr. Trump, he said, “calls me frequently and shares his thoughts on my television appearances.”
Far less visible are Republican lawmakers such as Representative Mimi Walters of California, who is facing a difficult campaign in an Orange County district where lobbing rhetorical bombs at the F.B.I. will do little with her centrist constituents but drawing attention to Disney’s bonuses could bear fruit.
“We talk about this all the time — we have got to get the message out on taxes,” Ms. Walters said.
Campaign veterans and Capitol Hill aides say part of the challenge, particularly in the House, is that many Republican lawmakers had until last year been in office only with a Democratic president and therefore are well practiced at oppositional politics but know little about trumpeting a positive message.
Party officials have for weeks sought to drive home to lawmakers and Mr. Trump how crucial it is that they sell the tax law, bluntly warning that it will take an ambitious campaign to transform the measure into an unambiguous political winner. Strategists have written memos for public consumption and published op-eds emphasizing the need to go on offense. Senior lawmakers have used private meetings to implore the president and their colleagues to stay focused on taxes.
At a gathering last month at Camp David, House Republican leaders invoked the example of Mr. Obama to Mr. Trump, who is often eager to act differently than his predecessor. The lawmakers told the president that Democrats suffered such deep losses in 2010 in part because Mr. Obama did not make a sufficient case for his economic stimulus measure, Republicans in attendance said.
Last week at a congressional Republican retreat in West Virginia, Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, the head of the House campaign arm, opened and closed his presentation to lawmakers with “three takeaways,” according to a Republican in attendance: “Be ready, sell tax reform and run a campaign.”
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, another member of the leadership, has even created a kit for lawmakers about how to stage district events to “tell the story of the tax cuts and jobs,” offering a “Gipper of the Week” award to Republicans who do top-flight communications works (the award: a jar of jelly beans, a favorite of Ronald Reagan’s).
David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster, made a presentation at the retreat arguing that many voters remained highly flexible in their views of the tax law, giving Republicans a chance — but so far, only a chance — to close the sale. But in an interview, Mr. Winston, who advises Speaker Paul D. Ryan, warned that the party could not trust public opinion on the law to continue improving on its own.
“There’s a need to make people aware of what’s in the legislation,” Mr. Winston said. “There is a large portion of the electorate that is aware of it, but there’s probably a larger portion of the electorate that’s not.”
Mr. Ryan has been uneasy about the attention devoted to the release of the House Intelligence Committee’s memo about the F.B.I. Instead, the speaker has mapped out a series of visits to businesses affected by the tax law to showcase his preferred 2018 message by example.
In a revealing sign of the party’s anxiety about Mr. Trump, the Republican National Committee has taken to trumpeting the “Trump tax cuts” and has urged campaigns and other Republican committees to credit Mr. Trump explicitly and often with enacting the new law, but has faced skepticism from Republicans wary of introducing Mr. Trump’s name into competitive elections.
Mr. Trump himself underscored the risk involved in tying him, as a personality, to the Republican economic agenda during a visit to Ohio this week. His speech was intended to showcase the health of the economy, but he veered into an extended digression about his recent address to Congress and accused Democrats of “treason” for refusing to clap at points. The economic message was lost.
The conundrum, several strategists and lawmakers conceded, is that Mr. Trump’s legal and culture wars are more politically galvanizing to the party’s conservative base than Ryanesque sermons on the free enterprise system.
“The G.O.P. base just doesn’t eat that up the way it does trending memo hash tags and firing-Mueller conspiracies,” Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist based in Ohio, said of the party’s economic message. “Thus, it’s no surprise members of Congress in super-red districts, immune to the perilous political environment we’re headed toward, put themselves and feeding the base first.”
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