This morning, in his weekly L.A. Times column, arch-conservative Jonah Goldberg analyzed the downgrade of the "red tsunami" to a red ripple in terms of what he called the “Trump factor.” He acknowledged “a popular backlash against the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade,” and “a string of Democratic legislative successes, better than expected job numbers, and a modest turnaround on high gas prices and a slowing of inflation generally.” But the big factor is the Trump factor “Since the search of his Mar-a-Lago home, the former president has dominated news coverage and has forced Republicans to talk about him and his issues— both in the political and psychological sense— rather than stay on message about the Democrats’ failings.”
One of the great advantages of being the out-party is that you get to say “don’t blame us” and “we didn’t do it” for everything that goes wrong. As the country goes in the wrong direction, you can be a backseat driver insisting you’d do it all differently.
Republicans were in such a sweet spot for more than a year. But it just doesn’t feel like Republicans are out of power anymore. When the Republican-appointee-dominated Supreme Court handed down its abortion decision, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, there was reason for skepticism that abortion would be a pivotal issue in the midterms. But Dobbs caught the GOP off guard.
In some Republican-controlled states, legislators passed sweeping abortion restrictions. Others passed more modest ones. But in both cases, the GOP let the loudest voices on the right define the Republican position on abortion, defending extreme positions and playing into Democratic framing.
Then there’s the Trump factor. It’s not just that Trump energizes the Democratic base— which is why Biden cynically elevated him in a speech last week— attacks on Trump also energize the GOP base, forcing Republicans to rally around him.
More important, the very nature of the scandal around Trump’s egregious mishandling of classified documents elicits a powerful déjà vu effect. The former president is claiming executive privilege— despite the fact that he’s no longer president— and talking like he’s an unjustly deposed king in internal exile. In terms of the national conversation, it feels like the guy never left.
By making himself the issue that defines a “good” Republican, Trump and his enablers have frittered away their advantage, turning what should be a referendum on the party in power into a choice between the two parties.
The other day William Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, said about the Mar-a-Lago search: “People say this was unprecedented, well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club.”
It’s a good point with broader applicability. According to precedent, losing presidents go away. This allows their party to reinvent itself as the reasonable alternative to the party in power. That’s a big reason why the midterm curse is such a powerful precedent. The GOP complacently relied on that precedent while ignoring the reasons for its existence.
Good example— during a tele rally for Geoff Diehl, the MAGA-extremist running in today’s primary for governor of Massachusetts, Trump said “Geoff is a proven fighter who successfully pushes back on the ultra liberal extremists, and who has driven them a little bit wild too because they can't figure him out, and he'll rule your state with an iron fist and he'll do what has to be done.” Do Massachusetts voters like iron fists? The first protests and riots leading up to the American Revolution were in Massachusetts, widely recognized as the most patriotic of all the colonies. Massachusetts colonists were the first to fight in the and they also made up most of the soldiers in the war as militiamen, minutemen and soldiers in the Continental Army. That was to get rid of George III, whose governor they had already deposed and replaced with an elected legislature.