Politically Uncorrected: The GOP’s Terrible Trilemma

One definition of a trilemma is “a difficult choice {among} three options, each of which is … unacceptable or unfavorable.” A trilemma is essentially a dilemma on steroids. Open any door; it doesn’t matter because all of them are the wrong door.

In the aftermath of this month’s off-year election, it appears national Republicans are confronting such a challenge as they prepare for the 2018 midterm elections, now some 11 months away.

In point of fact, Republicans would be on the defense in 2018 regardless of the outcome of this year’s elections. Recent midterms literally have become a referendum on the president, and Trump is deeply unpopular. Indeed, midterms since the Civil War have generally bruised and battered the president’s party, handing the incumbent party a 32 average House seat loss.

However, the results of the November 7th election seem to raise the normal midterm stakes exponentially.  National Republicans may be facing a “wave” election, entailing huge losses in both the House and the Senate, as well as electoral reverses in the 36 states that will elect governors in 2018.

Driving this alarm is Republican shock and awe in the aftermath of sharply increasing Democratic turnout on November 7th, an increase that both baffled and surprised many election observers.

This turnout surge was seen most dramatically in the suburbs in VA and NJ where Democrats won both gubernatorial elections. But even more significant perhaps was the rolling tsunami of Democratic voters in local elections around the country.

Most prominent was the turnout in Pennsylvania, notably in the four suburban “collar” counties outside of Philadelphia, where Democrats registered historic gains.

In Delaware County they won seats on the Delaware county council, something they had not done since county home rule was adopted decades ago. In Bucks County Democrats won four of the county row offices, and four in Chester County as well. These countywide results were replicated in dozens of townships and boroughs across the metro.

Donald Trump was not on the ballot in Virginia or New Jersey or the Pennsylvania suburbs or anywhere else in the country. But his presence was very much part of the environment that motivated Democratic voters across the country.

The “Trump factor” now dominates all electoral calculations. Trump is not only a deeply polarizing figure; he is a deeply paradoxical figure.  His staunch support among perhaps 35 percent of the electorate, especially among the working class Democrats, clashes violently with his 58 percent disapproval ratings. He is the most unpopular first term president in modern American history.

Republicans must confront this stark political reality: Trump is simultaneously the most loved and most reviled president in decades.

Thus the GOP’s trilemma, with its three options, each fraught with political peril.

The first option is to run all out with Trump, fully articulating support for his presidency and his agenda. This might be thought of as the Steve Bannon solution.

The second option is to run as far away from Trump as possible. Some prominent “establishment” Republicans are beginning to talk about this publicly and many more privately.

The last option is to do both while appearing to do neither. Basically this eschews any open campaigning with Trump while supporting much of his policy agenda. This option was the approach utilized by Ed Gillespie in his loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election.

Each option recalls the very definition of a trilemma: a tough choice, offering three options, none of which seems workable.

The first option requires full-throated support for a deeply unpopular president. In a presidential election, that might work as an Electoral College strategy, firming up the support of Trumps’ core supporters. But in congressional elections for 435 House members and 33 U. S. Senators, the math is awful, even in the grotesquely gerrymandered districts extant today.

Option two may be worse. If Republicans run away from the president, his core voters will abandon the party. Without Trump on the ballot they may stay home or even vote Democratic – leaving the GOP without much of a base.

The final option, ditch Trump, but embrace his agenda – sounded better until it was actually tried by Ed Gillespie in Virginia.  It certainly did not help Gillespie with Trump supporters, nor Republicans in winning the gubernatorial race.

It is possible that Republicans will adopt all three of these strategies, adapting each to local conditions and challenges. In the balkanized politics of contemporary America, it might work.

What won’t work however is for the GOP to move into 2018 with no coherent strategy to deal with the Trump factor. Doing nothing is not an option.

What’s clear is that the GOP still controls its own fate in 2018. Not clear is whether the party understands this – or knows what to do about it.

11 Responses

  1. You could write this column and the fate of the GOP in PA in three words: Bucks, Delco, Chester. That is the ballgame.

  2. It all may look a lot different next year:

    Stock market rising and GDP expanding;
    Jobs that pay are being created;
    Real economy of goods and services growing and standard of living rises;
    Obamacare tax will be gone;
    Regulations that consume time and energy reduced so small businesses can grow;
    Kim Jong Un is gone or contained and NoKo denuclearized;
    Iran checked;
    US Embassy moved to Jerusalem which appears more and more likely;

    and, perhaps, most importantly the dishonest Main Stream Media is exposed as unreliable, partisan, poltical, agenda-driven and ideological. Rush Limbaugh has a weekly audience of 27,000,000 and daily about 12,000,000.

  3. Where is everybody who was singing Val Digiorgio’s praises during the Chairman’s race? All the committee people who drank his Kool-Aid (Pat Poprick)…everyone who hailed him as a winner. Fact is that he lost key races this year. Chester County lost row races it hasn’t since the 1700’s! Also look at the judicial races where he lost there too. How’s it working out now for you GOP cronies??

    1. Sounds like sour grapes from the Thad camp. The state GOP chair, no matter who it is, wasn’t going to stop what happened in the election. This is on Trump…not so much his policies but his STYLE. which most people hate. Are you suggesting Thad, rather than Val, could have changed the outcome in SE PA? If so, maybe you’re drinking some other kind of kool-aid.

      1. “not so much his policies but his STYLE”?
        Specifically, what are his policies? The only apparent thing is his unceasing narcissism. All he wants is a win for himself, without regard to the contents. He didn’t have a clue about healthcare [remember when he said (paraphrased perhaps, but close], “Who knew healthcare would be so hard?” It was just an example of what he knows about policy (nothing).

  4. There is a fourth choice: vote Democratic. That is the smart and sane choice, so GOP will be reluctant to take it.

  5. Umm… The Delco Dems also won the three county row offices that were on the ballot: Controller, Sheriff and Register of Wills.

    The GOP is too partisan and foolish to impeach Trump, but wait until Mueller uncovers all Trump’s money laundering for Russian mobs and tax evasion.

    1. I am looking forward to the Trumps finally facing justice for blatant violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for their dealings in places like Azerbaijan. The New Yorker busted that one wide open back in March [Donald Trump’s Worst Deal, The New Yorker, 3/13/17], but there is always so much going on, it is hard to get through with all the other seemingly daily scandals.

  6. There is always their current strategy of ignoring eight years of crying doomsday on the deficit and debt only to try to pass a tax cut for the Trumps and the extremely rich that will run up the credit card by $1.5 trillion with the rest being paid for by working families, students, and people with massive medical bills. Surely that will be a winning message.

    1. Funny how Democrats suddenly care about the deficit in the face of GOP tax cuts. They never cried deficit when they passed all those Obama spending plans, did they?

      1. Did you ever here of Keynsian economics during times of severe recession? Let’s not forget that the Obama administration had to deal with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

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