President Trump and congressional Republicans have been on a bit of a hot streak as of late.
Their successfully passed tax cuts seem to have boosted them with Republican-leaning voters. They won the messaging war on the first round of government shutdown, largely because Trump stayed out of view during the fight. Trump managed to get through his State of the Union speech with at least as much coverage about Democrats’ refusal to applaud as his sometimes-divisive message.
That series of good breaks has helped Trump and congressional Republicans’ poll numbers tick up from abysmal to merely lousy, and boosted their hopes that the 2018 election might not be nearly as bad as many have feared. Trump’s approval rating has crept back up above 40 percent in some recent surveys for the first time in months, and Democrats’ lead has shrunk to the mid-single digits in many recent generic congressional polls, possibly not enough for them to win the House.
But in the last 24 hours, Trump made two new major gaffes that once again show his utter inability to stick with message discipline — and hint at how short-lived the Republican rally might prove to be.
On Monday, Trump accused Democrats of “treason” for refusing to applaud his State of the Union speech. On Tuesday, he threatened to shut down the government if Democrats don’t accede to his demands to drastically cut legal immigration in exchange for protections for DACA recipients.
Reporters didn’t even have to leave the room to get a view of how well that would play with vulnerable Republicans: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), at the White House for an event about MS-13 gang violence, took the opportunity to publicly rebuke the president over his remarks.
“We don’t need a government shutdown on this,” Comstock told him with the cameras present.
It was a smart move: Her suburban Northern Virginia district has a huge number of federal employees, and a large number of immigrants who voted for Hillary Clinton last presidential election.
But that wasn’t enough to dissuade Trump, who interrupted her reiterate his shutdown threat.
“You can say what you want. We are not getting support of the Democrats,” he replied.
Trump doubled down minutes later.
“I would shut it down over this issue. I can’t speak for everybody at the table but I will tell you, I would shut it down over this issue. If we don’t straighten out our border, we don’t have a country,” he told reporters. “Without borders we don’t have a country. So would I would shut it down over this issue? Yes. I can’t speak for our great representatives here but I have a feeling they may agree with me.”
Comstock’s comments are great fodder for her argument that she’ll break with Trump and stand up for her voters, and will likely give her a personal boost in 2018. But the president will continue to dominate the election landscape, and other GOP lawmakers aren’t going to be nearly as lucky as to be in the room to call Trump out when he says things that will hurt their reelection chances.
Trump has mostly managed to stay out of his own way and stick to the script in the last few weeks, and that’s helped his party recover with independent voters. But his off-script moments regularly remind swing voters why many don’t like him while further infuriating Democrats, driving their election enthusiasm ever-higher. After a surprisingly disciplined stretch it appears he’s returning to his old ways once again — and that should alarm Republicans already facing a tough election map.