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March 8, 2019

In polarized America, the divisions post-Trump remain intense:

Unfortunately, two years into the Trump Administration, the country has not gotten past the hyper-partisanship that dominated American politics during the bitter 2016 campaign and the resulting unorthodox Trump presidency. American voters remain angrier than ever and the divisions have gotten deeper.

The 2018 mid-term elections clearly reflected those divisions. According to post-election surveys, for almost 60 percent of the voters, the November 2018 election was a referendum on President Trump – even though he was not on the ballot.  And the results clearly reflected the President’s job approval ratings of well under 50 percent.

Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, picking up more than 40 seats. Republicans retained control of the U.S. Senate, gaining two seats, but those results were disappointing for the GOP given that ten incumbent Democratic senators were running for re-election in states President Trump carried in 2016 by double digits.

Election results in the states were even better for the Democrats. They picked up 7 GOP governorships and almost 325 GOP-held state legislative seats, gaining control of 5 GOP-led state legislative bodies.   Even more troubling for the GOP, their losses were not attributable to a sudden increase in the number of young and liberal activists, but to big losses in the traditionally-GOP suburbs where voters –particularly women – turned out to send a message to the President.

A recap of the Trump presidency’s first two years:

Personnel is policy: The Trump Administration continues to deal with issues that have negatively impacted their ability to govern from day one.  The White House itself remains chaotic and unpredictable, caused in large part by the continuing historically high staff turnover.  In less than two years the President has had three chiefs of staff, and the overall White House senior staff turnover exceeded 50 percent less than halfway through his first term.

That crippling turnover extends outside the White House staff as well, with unprecedented departures of Cabinet secretaries and other senior agency officials. There are twenty-four positions in the government considered “cabinet level” and as of this month, eleven of the initial twenty-four appointees are gone, and only twelve still hold the position to which they were originally appointed.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, there are 710 key sub-cabinet positions in the government that require Senate confirmation. A full two years into the Trump Administration, only 430 of those positions have been confirmed.  Even more remarkably, there are 146 position for which the President has made no nomination at all.

The Mueller investigation:  The Mueller investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign has been omnipresent since his appointment as Special Counsel almost two years ago.  The President and his team continue to argue that there is nothing to investigate, the Democrats continue to argue that the investigation will prove that candidate and/or President Trump is guilty of crimes sufficient to warrant impeachment.

As of this writing, the final Mueller report is expected soon – but “soon” keeps moving. Legal analysts generally agree that there is not yet enough known about the content of the final report to reach conclusions.   Whatever the outcome, Mr. Mueller and his investigation and associates have been a critical component of this Administration and American politics from the outset.

Despite the chaos, the Administration has an impressive record of accomplishment:

The Judiciary:  The most lasting legacy of the Trump Administration – and of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – will be the confirmation of judges to the Federal bench. Including the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, 86 Trump-appointed judges now sit on US Courts; significantly, 31 of those judges now sit on the Circuit Courts of Appeals.

This record of success has come over the intense opposition of Senate Democrats. As of February 27th, 2019, the Republican Leader had to file cloture – a motion to end debate and vote on confirmation of the nominee – to stop Democratic filibusters of 49 of President Trump’s judicial nominations.  To put that number in context, there were six – SIX – cloture motions filed on judicial nominations of Presidents Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Bush 41 and Reagan combined at the same point in their administrations.  (https://www.heritage.org/judicialtracker))

With continued Republican control of the Senate for the 116th Congress, the nomination and confirmation process will continue.  And there is plenty for them to do:  According to the U.S. Courts website, there are now 152 vacancies on the Federal bench, including eleven circuit court vacancies. (https://www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/judicial-vacancies/current-judicial-vacancies)

The economy: The economy has grown measurably in the last two years, with consistent job creation and record-low unemployment. Both business and consumer confidence have been strong. It should be noted, however, that the income gap and wealth inequality continue to be troubling issues, as evidenced by the GOP losses in the November elections despite the strong economic numbers. The wealth/income gap is a rallying cry for the Democrats heading into the 2020 election, with left-wing voices in the Democratic Party openly calling for government control of the economy and income/wealth re-distribution.

Regulatory reform and relief:  A major factor contributing to the strong economy is significant regulatory reform. The President instructed his departments and agencies to reverse the regulatory overreach of the Obama Administration where possible and to promulgate new regulations only when and where necessary. (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on the Regulatory Agenda.)

Other issues:  In addition to the very high profile items noted above, the list of accomplishments and actions taken by the Trump Administration is impressive – and very business-friendly:

  • America’s energy independence is more secure today with the approval of the Keystone and Dakota Pipelines, his reversal of a drilling ban in Alaska, opening up of a small slice of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration, and repeal of the ban on fracking on public lands;
  • An executive order cut the time for infrastructure permit approvals;
  • An Executive Order expanded apprenticeships in a public-private partnership which is now being implemented by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta;
  • The appointment of pro-business members of the National Labor Relations Board began the process of reversing the actions of 8 years of pro-labor Obama Boards (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on Labor);
  • The most significant tax bill in decades was signed into law at the end of December, 2018 (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on Taxes).

What’s in store heading into the 2020 election?

The Democrats:  The Democratic Party is bitterly divided between the “establishment” and the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren faction which is pulling the party ever farther to the left. That left-wing of their Party threatens the Democratic establishment like the Tea Party threatened Republicans after the 2010 election: deviate from our orthodoxy and we’ll find a primary opponent and take your seat.

That divide took on a very high profile with the surprise primary victory of 29-year-old Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over an establishment Democratic Congressman in New York City last year. That profile has continued to explode as AOC, as she’s come to be known, has become the face of the new Democratic left with a huge social media following and saturation media attention.

AOC’s increasing stardom is exacerbating the divisions in the Democratic Party as she promotes a radical left-wing agenda, and openly criticizes others in her Party unwilling to enthusiastically embrace it. At a House Democratic caucus meeting in late February, AOC criticized Democratic House members who had voted for an amendment that she believed weakened a gun control measure, stating that Democrats who dared to vote against the leftwing agenda would be put on “a list” – a not-very-subtle threat that they would face left-wing primary opponents.

And on February 22nd she tweeted; “If you don’t like the #GreenNewDeal, then come up with your own ambitious, on-scale proposal to address the global climate crisis.  Until then, we’re in charge – and you’re just shouting from the cheap seats.”

A 29-year-old who’s been in Congress for only two months is “in charge?” AOC’s passion for her ideology is obvious, but it is difficult to see how she can do anything but further fracture the Democrat party and exacerbate the divisions between the “establishment” and the Democratic-Socialist left.

The one thing that does unite the Democrats is their hatred of President Trump. With Democrats now in control of the U.S. House, the White House – and the President personally – can expect an endless barrage of investigations, oversight hearings, subpoenas . . . of anything and everything that businessman/candidate/President Trump has ever touched.

The Democrat-controlled House cannot enact their policy agenda into law with both a GOP-controlled Senate and the President’s veto to stop them. But newly-empowered House Committee Chairs have already made it clear that there is no aspect of the President’s life or Administration that will escape inquiry and investigation.

Despite their energy and efforts, it’s likely that little public attention will be paid to them (short of an attempt to impeach the President) as the presidential campaign heats up. There are likely to be more than two-dozen Democrats seeking their Party’s nomination to oppose Donald Trump, and as the Republicans experienced in 2016 with 16 candidates running to succeed President Obama, the media circus that will follow the presidential campaigns will put Congress on a back burner.

The Republican Party has long been divided internally among the (1) the Congressional “establishment” and traditional GOP voter, (2) the right wing House Freedom Caucus and its base, and (3) the not-really-a-Republican Trump voter.

All of these factions within the GOP have a new and in some ways daunting task before them – how to respond not only to the multiple-candidate Democrat presidential campaigns, but how to respond to their own President and almost certain nominee.

The minority Party in the House of Representatives – now the Republicans – has very little power. The House is a purely majoritarian body, and the minority simply cannot determine the outcome of legislative initiatives. All the current GOP minority can really do is actively oppose left-wing legislation proposed by the Democratic leaders and defend the President in the multiple fronts of Committee oversight hearings and investigations. Further complicating the GOP Leadership’s ability to manage their conference:  barely a quarter of the current GOP members of the House have ever served in the minority, so learning how to be an effective opposition force is their first task.

On the opposite side of the Capitol, the Senate remains in GOP hands, but they – like the House Democratic majority – will be unable to enact a partisan agenda into law over the opposition of the House Democratic majority. However, the Senate has an agenda that the Democrats cannot block:  the continued confirmation of judges to the federal courts – a singular and notably successful mission of both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But both House and Senate GOP members up for re-election this year have a challenge: how to respond not only to President Trump’s policies, but to his campaign.

The President remains very popular with Republican voters in many states and districts, and GOP candidates in those areas welcome the opportunity to campaign with him.

But GOP candidates in swing districts and states have to try to find a balance between support for the President’s policies – a strong economy, regulatory reform, and outstanding nominations to the federal courts – and intense negative voter reaction to the unorthodox personal behavior and constant Tweets coming out of the White House.

And the results of the 2018 mid-term elections will have been a warning for them: GOP candidates lost in many of the districts that the GOP had traditionally carried.

While Democrats in Congress try to figure out how to remain relevant despite two dozen Democratic presidential candidates setting the agenda for their Party, the Republican face an equal-but-opposite dilemma:   how to deal with a larger-than-life and unpredictable president running for re-election.

And then there’s the Mueller investigation and his long-awaited report.

 

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