Republicans Need a Victory

If they can’t pass tax reform, they may not hold Congress—and that could lead to impeachment.

By Jason L. Riley

President Trump told House Republicans Sunday that not passing tax reform could come back to bite them in next year’s midterm elections, and he’s probably right about that. Without a significant legislative victory to show for their majorities in Congress, Republicans could find themselves back in the minority.

Last fall, Republicans campaigned and fundraised on repealing ObamaCare and cutting taxes. So far, they’ve done neither. Pro-growth tax reform, particularly of the corporate variety under consideration, will help increase hiring and wages. But tax reform also has become something of a political imperative for Republicans in Washington, who to date have shown that they are better at winning elections than at governing.

Mr. Trump has a core of supporters for whom legislative victories seem secondary; the president’s combative showmanship matters more to them. His approval rating was 37% on Election Day and peaked at 46% way back in February. But voters may hold Congress to a different standard. While Mr. Trump can trade accusations with professional athletes and widows of fallen soldiers, Republicans in the House and Senate are expected to pass legislation and fulfill campaign pledges. Moreover, they’ll be on the ballot next year, not Mr. Trump.

The president relishes using Congress as a foil, to dodge blame for a floundering agenda. As a midterm election strategy, however, this may be self-defeating. Midterms draw less voter interest than presidential elections, so turnout becomes even more important. The election map still favors Republicans, especially in the Senate, where the party is defending fewer seats than Democrats. But Republicans up for re-election next year will be counting on Trump voters to win, and Mr. Trump’s habit of picking fights with congressional leaders in his own party could fuel voter apathy among his loyal supporters.

A president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections, especially when his approval rating is below 50%. Mr. Trump’s favorable rating is currently at 39.5%, according to Real Clear Politics. Democrats will attempt to paint every Republican candidate in 2018 as a Trump puppet, a strategy being field-tested in this year’s Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests. We all know that Mr. Trump has defied polls before, but there’s no need for the president to make matters more difficult for the only people standing between him and impeachment proceedings.

With only 52 Republicans in the Senate, the party can spare few yeas and still pass tax reform, yet the president continues to behave as though he has plenty of votes to spare. His public spat, reignited this week, with GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is only the most recent example. Regardless of who started it and who’s telling the truth, the reality is that the president needs Mr. Corker right now much more than the retiring senator needs the president.

Mr. Trump’s threat to join former adviser Steve Bannon in backing primary challenges to his Republican critics is no less shortsighted. Resources that could go toward defeating Democrats will have to be used to defend against primary opponents. And even if GOP incumbents are able to stave off the challengers, Trump loyalists will be less inclined to turn out and support a nominee Mr. Bannon and company have deemed unworthy. Both scenarios work to the advantage of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

In a recent, thoughtful essay for the Atlantic magazine, journalist Molly Ball describes traveling around middle America—“Trump Country”—with a group of well-funded Democratic activists who are still trying to understand “the mysterious ways of the elusive Trump voter” and figure out why Hillary Clinton lost. “The trip was predicated on the optimistic notion that if Americans would only listen to teach other, they would find more that united than divided them,” writes Ms. Ball. “But these are not uncontested assumptions. And, three days into their safari in flyover country, the researchers were hearing some things that disturbed them greatly—sentiments that threatened their beliefs to the very core.”

Specifically, they heard from many people who had little use for “consensus, moderation and pragmatism.” What the activists encountered rather closely reflected the bellicosity on display in the nation’s capital these days and personified in President Trump. The upshot, according to Ms. Ball, is that liberals are still somewhat in denial about the country’s mood. “Their journey to Trump’s America had done nothing to unsettle their preconceptions.”

The voters who gave Republicans their majorities deserve more in return than what the party has delivered. Failure to pass tax reform would be failure to deliver on yet another promise. And it could well be the last straw. The GOP Congress needs a victory, and Mr. Trump needs a GOP Congress. They should start acting like it.

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