The Republican Dilemma

GOP leaders are stuck trying to rein in Trump’s excesses without alienating their own primary voters, who are largely standing by their president.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

CARTERSVILLE, Ga.—Several miles off Route 41 in Bartow County, Georgia, is the downtown area of Cartersville. It's a throwback place with brick-face storefronts, independently owned businesses, and railroad tracks that bring freight trains straight through the center of the town every 30 minutes.

Here, the firing of James Comey arouses not support or opposition, but rather, indifference. Nobody I spoke with cared either way; it doesn't affect them or their families. People shrugged when asked about Trump's tweetstorms. Most agreed that press treatment of Trump is too harsh. Overall, the focus for Trump voters here is the big picture: the economy, jobs, and border security.

Bartow County is 885 miles from Manhattan, but this is Donald Trump country. He took 46 percent of the vote here during the primary, trailed by Ted Cruz at 25 percent and Marco Rubio at 18 percent. In the general election, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton, winning 75 percent of the vote to Clinton's 21 percent.

Currently, however, President Trump’s job approval is clinging to the 40 percent threshold. And while Republican members of Congress, save for a select few, are backing the president, his legislative agenda appears stalled, with the prospects of health-care reform tenuous at best. Tax reform, at this point, looks like a pipe dream.

Trump's struggles have left Republicans, who had once hoped to gain seats in 2018, worrying they might lose control of both the House and Senate. "Obviously no one knows what is going to happen in next year's midterm elections, but analysts who have watched congressional elections for a long time are seeing signs that 2018 could be a wave election that flips control of the House to Democrats,” Charlie Cook wrote recently in National Journal.

Trump keeps adding gasoline to fires, yet House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell behave as if it’s business-as-usual in Washington, D.C. If there is anything to explain their reticence in publicly rebuking Trump, it likely comes from GOP fears of alienating Trump voters across the country.

Ross's Diner has been a Cartersville fixture since 1945. There are no tables (save for one or two outside), just two long counters with stools that hold a total of 30 people. On any given morning, a dozen or so are there at one time, eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and chatting with each other about a variety of topics, including politics.

Several said Trump hadn’t been their first choice.  Tony Favero and his wife Elizabeth, owners of two "Larry's Giant Subs” franchises in town, initially supported current Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson. "We wanted somebody who was a real outsider."

Both backed Trump in the general election, but at this point, Tony is handing Trump mediocre marks. "I would say a C. I'm disappointed he's focusing so much on Syria and North Korea instead of focusing on domestic issues, such as tax reform and repealing Obamacare." Elizabeth was more optimistic, but she also offered a mixed review. Although she believes Trump has achieved more than she thought possible, she also complained Trump is often immature, needing to dial back his impulsive behavior.

Sharon Ross was another early Carson supporter. "He really had it together. His answers to debate questions were thoughtful." She appreciated Carson didn't have a political background. After he dropped out, she voted for Trump to oppose Hillary Clinton. Ross didn't have much to say about his performance so far; she's tuned out of the news entirely, she said. "It's only been four months. Come back and ask me in four years and I'll give my opinion on how he's doing."

The word establishment never surfaced. People spoke only of political insiders and outsiders.

"I was with him the moment he came down that escalator," Debra Cagle, a server at Ross's, said with a smile. Cagle, like the Faveros, wanted an outsider for president. "He can't be bought like those career politicians," she said. She dressed as Donald Trump for Halloween, and readily produces a photo to prove it. Thrilled with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Cagle said the biggest problem facing Donald Trump is the mainstream media. "I don't trust anything they report."

She wasn’t alone. Ken Wilbur of Powder Springs grew up on a farm near the Cobb County Airport. "I've worked to elect politicians from the local level to the federal level," said Ken Wilbur of Powder Springs. “I have no idea why people do it.”  He’s appalled by what he sees as the media’s unfair treatment of Trump’s family. “If you went after my family, there'd be big trouble. I don't know why he wants that job. I sure wouldn't want it."

"I wish they'd leave him alone, already," said Hugh Siniard. The 61-year-old had recently retired from a utility company after 40 years. He hadn’t had a preference in the Republican primary; he'd been prepared to vote for anybody that was not Hillary Clinton. "I'm glad he's holding the liberal media in line," he said.

But for all his discontent with the media, Siniard was still waiting to see Trump deliver on his campaign pledges. "I'm happy with Neil Gorsuch," he said, "but I want Trump to focus on what he promised, such as securing the border and putting people to work here in the United States." Siniard supports the construction of a border wall and Trump's infrastructure proposal.

This is the predicament now facing conservatives and Republicans in Congress. Trump’s supporters—their own primary voters—are standing by him. But while Trump supporters want him to focus on the big picture issues such as health care and tax reform, the president spends most of his time consumed with the kind of trivialities other presidents leave for spokespeople to handle. Trump still sees the presidency as a brand to sell, rather than a political office in which to shape an overall agenda for the country. Instead of talking about his tax reform plans when asked questions, the president is still reminding people he won the election.

A 70-year-old man, who spent 50 years cultivating an image and personality, isn't going to adjust it, even while occupying the Oval Office. When Rod Rosenstein named Robert Mueller to as special counsel, the Trump administration released a brief, level-headed statement reiterating its belief no collusion between Trump's campaign and foreign entities existed and looked forward to the end of the investigation. The following morning, Trump took to Twitter, lashing out at the investigation, calling it the "single greatest witch hunt of a politician in history." He followed it up with another tweet, complaining about the lack of the appointment of a special counsel in the Obama administration.

At this point, it does not appear that anybody in the White House can communicate to Trump the urgency to dial down the tweetstorms and outbursts. (Kellyanne Conway defended Trump’s tweeting as going “directly to the people.”)

That leaves leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in a bind. They worry about Trump alienating the swing voters some of their members will need to win reelection but if they make their concerns public, Trump supporters may see it as an attempt to undermine the president. In March, Trump threatened lawmakers who didn't back the AHCA with a primary opponent. Many Republicans represent districts that went strongly for Donald Trump in 2016, and while they hold safe seats for the general election, none of them want to waste time and resources beating back primary opponents.

Much as Trump voters may detest insiders, the president’s ability to enact his agenda now rests on Ryan and McConnell. They’re left to perform a high-wire act of politics and personal persuasion, trying to rein in their president’s excesses without alienating their own voters. If they can’t pull it off, voters in places like Cartersville are likely to be unforgiving. Couple that with a resurgent Democratic electorate, and the wave election Charlie Cook warned about comes closer every day.