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Dublin: 1 °C Monday 19 March, 2018

2017: How was it for Trump?

A stunning year in politics on the other side of the Atlantic has ended on a remarkable note, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IT IS ONLY fitting that what was a stunning year in politics on the other side of the Atlantic has ended on a remarkable note.

For a Democrat to win a seat representing conservative Alabama in the United States Senate – especially a pro-choice, pro-immigration candidate like Doug Jones – is an extraordinary feat, even against Roy Moore, a deeply flawed candidate.

Several questions have been posed in the aftermath. How bad is this loss for Donald Trump who, having first endorsed his unsuccessful opponent in the primary, then strenuously advocated for Moore in the campaign’s closing days in a state the President won by 28% last year?

Is it indicative of the American electorate turning on the controversial commander-in-chief? Might Democrats have a realistic chance of being competitive in red states and districts in next year’s midterm elections? Could they take one or perhaps both houses of Congress?

Allegations against Roy Moore

The answer, broadly speaking, to all of the above is that onlookers should not extrapolate excessively from one election that was defined by the unique persona of and horrifying allegations against Roy Moore.

In truth, given that an ethical inquiry in Washington, DC probably would have begun as soon as Moore took office and that Democrats would have attempted to link the accused paedophile to every candidate in the country from his party in 2018, the Republicans dodged a bullet.

Moreover, the minute Doug Jones casts a vote on abortion or immigration is the beginning of the end of his political career. Alabama hasn’t morphed into Massachusetts. Another Republican will just about certainly defeat him when he must stand for re-election in 2020.

Nonetheless, it can be argued that this result signals some slippage in the decisive backing the President received in the confines of the ballot box in 2016 from “soft Trump” voters. These men and women are indispensable to a cogent analysis of the current state of play in American politics, yet are typically glossed over.

Instead, there is a similarly important focus on Middle America, on the one hand, or a grossly over-simplistic and fundamentally misguided notion that racists delivered the White House to a New York billionaire, on the other.

Who are “soft Trump” voters?

They are college-educated, Republican-leaning, suburban-dwelling whites who were uneasy about Trump, but opted for him because they thought he would be better for their wallets. They are millions of women who, notwithstanding what they knew about the GOP nominee, somewhat surprisingly could not abide Hillary Clinton.

They are the roughly 30% of Latinos and 9% of African Americans who, although they didn’t agree with all that Donald Trump had to say, liked the way he said it. There are many, many more who aren’t amenable to straightforward classification – geographically, ethnically, socio-economically or otherwise.

If, as historically low approval ratings suggest, these voters have been alienated by his behaviour and priorities since last January, Donald Trump has a sizable task ahead of him in making a credible run for four more years.

In the shorter term, his fellow Republicans must address the fallout from an unprecedented presidency as they seek to maintain their majorities on Capitol Hill. This could lead them to quite different political places.

A tax reform package

In the face of the electorate’s scepticism, which is bolstered by evidence supplied by objective experts, President Trump and Republicans were hell-bent on enacting a tax reform package that, in the words of Forbes magazine – identified by absolutely no one as a publication aimed at the less well off in society – “delivers massive tax cuts to the 1% and [a] sharp kick to the upper middle class.”

Getting this legislation passed will benefit some Republicans in Congress and their constituents. It is unlikely, however, to do much for the president’s standing in the states where he eked out upset victories.

Indeed, this advocacy for the interests of the wealthy, while it may satisfy GOP big funders and associated lobby groups, is at odds with candidate Trump’s repeated campaign pledges.

As such, the President would be wise to start 2018 by making good on his promise to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. Doing so would find favour with the vast majority of the citizenry, employ struggling people throughout the country who work with their hands and force Democrats to “play ball” in devising a plan that is both comprehensive and affordable.

Many Republicans would surely balk on philosophical and fiscal grounds. But dissenting right-wing ideologues would have to remember simultaneously that President Trump, who seldom found common cause with them in the past, has already done their bidding on taxes and Obamacare.

The Democrats

The Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to settle on a coherent, unifying message that will resonate with people in all 50 states as they endeavour to ameliorate their electoral fortunes. Of course, speculation is aflutter about who their 2020 standard bearer might be, but the type of congressional candidates they field in the mid-terms is an immediately pressing concern.

In this vein, they actually could learn something from the recent error of their adversaries. By nominating Roy Moore – in some instances, because “God told them to” – Alabama Republicans selected the one individual who could lose the race. Democrats, in choosing candidates next year, must be far more judicious and should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Electability, not the purity tests imposed by the National Abortion Rights Action League and others, should be the central animating impulse for the party’s loyalists.

Of course, that may mean not having, or at least not reverencing, a core platform that some commentators claim is so important and a sine qua non in politics. But is that truly necessary in a country where there are more than 300 million people who are diverse in every conceivable way and where there are just two major political parties? A far looser set of baseline principles may suffice and would surely be more advantageous politically.

Which party will have a better 2018?

In short, complexity abounds equally for Democrats and Republicans in the waning days of 2017. To a significant extent, this is down to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Remaining mindful of the conditions and related mood of the American people that engendered his volatile presidency and consequently managing to pivot adroitly will determine which party has a better 2018.

One caveat to that prescription: The leak-proof Mueller investigation continues. The New Year should tell us whether it is politically immaterial, earthshattering or somewhere in between.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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