Debbie Lesko, a former Arizona state lawmaker, was jubilant over her victory for a seat in Congress last night against Hiral Tipirneni, a physician who was never given much of a chance to win. But Lesko’s narrow tally—52.9 per cent to 47.1 per cent—in a staunchly conservative district is why Republican strategists are not. Donald Trump won the district by 21 percentage points in 2016, but his widespread unpopularity now looms large over congressional races.
Republican candidates are between the devil and the deep blue sea. Distance themselves from Trump and the base revolts. Tie themselves closely to the old boy and independent voters find them revolting. How to propitiate angry voters? A more popular Trump would have a tonic effect on the party. The prospect that Trump will be able to surmount his difficulties, however, appears most improbable. A new Politico poll indicates that events such as Trump’s prospective meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—whom Trump, in what amounted to a Neville Chamberlain moment, deemed “very honorable” yesterday—are doing nothing to raise his poll numbers. (Does he plan on bringing an umbrella along when he meets Kim as well?) Politico reports that 34 per cent of the respondents indicate that they have zero confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the portly pariah of Pyongyang. Trump’s bluster about the Iran deal—which he wants to kill but not take responsibility for killing—is unlikely to instil much confidence in his leadership, either.
Instead, it is the incompetence and corruption of the administration that has become the most conspicuous feature of his presidency. The latest controversies engulfing the Trump presidency help to explain why the Republican elephant is becoming something of an endangered species. Once upon a time it could stamp around the political landscape with impunity, laying waste to the liberal underbrush around it. The sound of it trumpeting in indignation was enough to send progressives scurrying for cover. Now all that is gone.
The nomination of Dr. Ronny Jackson to head the Veterans Affairs agency is a case in point. Jackson, who earned Trump’s gratitude by declaring that his splendid constitution suggested he could live to be almost as old as Methuselah, was never properly vetted by the administration for his new post. Around 20 former military employees are apparently accusing Jackson of improperly dispensing prescription drugs—he was known in the White House as the “candy man” – and of being a dipsomaniac. Senator Jon Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, says that the accusations are “not acceptable.” The truth is that “the Doc,” as Trump likes to call him, has become an insalubrious figure, a symptom of the administration’s own dire maladies. But that isn’t stopping Trump from compounding the damage. Yesterday he seemed to pull back away from the nomination during a press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron: “I don’t want to put a man through a process like this. It’s too ugly, and it’s too disgusting.” No longer. Today the White House is indicating that it intends to fight on for Jackson in the face of mounting doubts and opposition.
The faster the November midterm election approaches, the more congressional Republicans are likely to be searching for their own antidote to the Trump administration’s political afflictions. Forewarned is supposed to be forearmed. In this instance, however, there may be no potent remedy.