Steve Bannon is on the warpath.
The goal? He appears to want to destroy the Republican Party.
The onetime White House aide, now back at his old Breitbart post, is vowing primary challenges to every single Republican Senate incumbent except Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2018 cycle.
Let me first say that I share deep frustration with the lack of legislative progress 10 months into the Trump administration. But the cause of that (temporary) failure is complicated.
Yes, congressional Republicans have been operating with insufficient urgency and failed to develop a consensus on health care reform. They deserve blame for this.
But there are other causes as well.
Mr. Trump’s White House was a study in chaos for the first six months, which undermined negotiations on Capitol Hill and squandered precious time. Democrats have opposed the president with greater unity and ferocity than any previous president, refusing to engage on issues even where there could be agreement.
They delayed confirmation of his Cabinet nominees longer than any incoming administration in history. They opposed his Supreme Court nominee before one was named. They began discussing impeachment within days of his taking the oath of office. There was no honeymoon period, and if Mr. Trump had a mandate, Democrats refused to concede the point.
Until the push for tax reform, Mr. Trump has appeared unable or unwilling to build coalitions around his priorities. His team has failed to put any real political pressure on the 10 Senate Democratic incumbents who are facing re-election in 2018 in states that Mr. Trump won in November. This amounts to political malpractice.
Some on the right urge the Senate to eliminate the filibuster rule. This idea doesn’t have 15 votes in the chamber, but it persists as a major talking point. But 50 votes plus Vice President Pence as the tiebreaker were all that was required to repeal and replace Obamacare, and two versions failed in the Senate and the first version failed in the House. The Senate’s rules were irrelevant to the failure in the health care fight.
Changing the filibuster now would be suicidal and could make a single-payer health care system a reality as soon as 2019.
When this election cycle began, it appeared impossible for Democrats to retake the Senate, playing defense in 10 states and offense in only two, needing to net three seats to take back the majority. That math is now scrambled, as Mr. Bannon, backed by billionaire Robert Mercer, is recruiting challengers against nearly every Republican incumbent. That can only expand the number of targets for the Democrats.
The list of states where competitive GOP Senate primaries were expected was once limited to Nevada and Arizona, where moderate incumbents were expecting challenges from the right.
Now Mr. Bannon is talking about targeting states like Utah and Wyoming, in addition to many others.
Now, I am not squeamish. Primaries tend to result in candidates sharpening their game, which is a good thing. But resources are precious, and the single most effective way to move a legislative agenda is to replace 10 Democratic Senate incumbents with Republicans in the 2018 election. The number of Republican senators after November 2018 will determine whether much of Mr. Trump’s agenda ultimately can become law in his first term.
Mr. Bannon this week called on Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker to resign after he responded in kind to insulting comments from the president. Mr. Bannon clearly misunderstands the constitutional relationship between the legislative and executive branch. Senators are elected by their states, not as part of a ticket with the president. Their interests are mostly aligned, but a senator does not operate underneath the president. Senators have six-year terms; presidents have just four-year terms.
We are now entering a crucial phase.
Republicans are at risk of ending the 2017 calendar year without any major legislative accomplishments. Republican voters are right to be deeply frustrated. Tax reform hangs in the balance and tricky legislative negotiations are ahead.
But an open, bloody civil war within the party benefits only the Democrats.
Republicans promised to move an agenda that included replacing Obamacare, passing tax reform, rebuilding the military, securing the border and confirming conservative judges. These issues unite all Republicans and must be the urgent priority of every elected Republican at the federal level.
I’m reminded of the old adage that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
Maybe now would be a good time to try using some honey.
• Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” may be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on the web at MackOnPolitics.com.
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