If you're a Republican political consultant, this year you've probably had your clients look into your eyes, fear and desperation on their faces, and ask, "What are we going to do?" It's not an easy question to answer, given that we may be headed for a wave election. The thing about waves is that they push past everything before them, which in a political context means that the characteristics of individual districts and candidates matter less and less as the wave sweeps over.
But Republicans have a plan, in the form of two magic words that will turn the electorate back their way: Hillary Clinton.
You remember her, right? Wrote a book, makes the occasional public appearance, not actually president of the United States, and exceedingly unlikely to destroy your life?
No matter. "With control of Congress up for grabs this fall, the GOP's most powerful players are preparing to spend big on plans to feature Clinton as a central villain in attack ads against vulnerable Democrats nationwide," reports the Associated Press. "We're going to make them own her," says a Republican Party spokesperson.
So get your "Trump That Bitch" T-shirt out from the bottom of the drawer, because it's time to stoke those fires of hate once more. Sometimes it'll just be "My opponent loves Hillary. Well, I say we don't need more Hillary here in West Flurdburt!" At other times, it'll be about defending President Trump. "Nothing's been turned up except that Hillary Clinton is the real guilty party here," says a Senate candidate in Indiana about Robert Mueller's probe. "We don't need to investigate our president, we need to arrest Hillary," says an ad for West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship, who may be the most despicable human being running for office this year.
Blankenship, a coal magnate, recently spent a year in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people. He is unrepentant. But he's hardly the only Republican candidate sounding like he's trying to rerun Trump's 2016 race in 2018. The question is, can it possibly work?
It's hard to see how. It's true that Republicans still dislike Hillary Clinton, but that's not likely to be a powerful motivating force in the midterms. While I try never to underestimate the depths of stupidity to which the electorate can sink, is anyone really going to rush to the polls to give the finger to someone who isn't in office now and never will be again?
Meanwhile, Republicans in contested primaries are competing to see who can prove themselves the most enthusiastic allies of the president. Even that, however, has its limits, because Trump is not on the ballot.
And while the 2018 election might excite Democrats with the prospect of wounding Trump, defending him just doesn't offer the same thrill. That was the thing about 2016: For many of Trump's supporters, the very fact that Trump's election was shocking and unexpected was what made it so exciting. It was intoxicating, an almost orgasmic explosion of rage, like walking up to everyone you've ever hated — your boss, your ex-wife, that guy who cut you off in traffic, some elitist professor you saw on TV — and punching them right in the face.
But once the blow lands, it's done. In November, the MAGA crowd won't be able to elect Trump for the first time all over again, with all the empowerment that provided. They won't even be electing Trump.
This isn't a dilemma unique to Trump, however. The party holding the White House usually loses seats in the midterm in part because it's hard to get people whipped up from that position. The only times in recent history when a president didn't lose serious ground in a midterm were 2002, when everyone was mad at al Qaeda, and 1998, when everyone was mad at the Republicans over the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Today, voters aren't mad at Democrats. They're mad at the president.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Republicans don't have a lot to show for their year and a half in complete control of Washington. Their biggest accomplishment, the tax cut bill, has been a political dud; according to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans still oppose it and only 18 percent say it lowered their taxes.
Which means Republicans will go back to the oldies, like a singer telling the graying crowd at a nightclub, "Let's take a walk down memory lane, with a little number you might remember. It's called, 'To Hell With You, Hillary Clinton.' I think you know the words."