Spin Cannot Hide a Blue Wave

Political spin: In politics the attempt to control or influence communication in order to deliver one’s preferred message…. [Political spin] is used to refer to the sophisticated selling of a specific message that is heavily biased in favour of one’s own position and that employs maximum management of the media with the intention of maintaining or exerting control over the situation, often implying deception or manipulation.Encyclopædia Britannica.

Political spinning includes the timing of information delivery, the selective presentation of facts and sound bites, and, often, a redefinition of terms and phrases. Spin, to be believable, must bear some relation to reality, must, at some level, be believable. If not, the spin becomes so outrageous as to be laughable.

Such is an apt description of Republican attempts to explain Democrat Conor Lamb’s stunning victory in a special election in Pennsylvania’s soon-to-disappear 18th Congressional District: Laughable. A stunning victory because Donald Trump carried the district by more than 20 points in the 2016 presidential election; laughable because the spin is divorced from reality.

Here is the President Trump on Lamb, a candidate against whom the president twice campaigned: “The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis. He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.’” Remember, Trump called “the young man” “Lamb the sham” only a few nights earlier. Trump was not alone in an attempt to turn Lamb into a Republican-in-everything-but-name. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Lamb a “pro-gun, anti-Pelosi conservative.”  Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham tweeted: “Watching @ConorLambPA this morning. He’s basically a younger @TomCottonAR.  Come on, Conor, your natural home is the GOP.”

Former Representative Tim Murphy

Nice try, guys, but while Conor Lamb was the perfect fit to run as a Democrat in the partly suburban, partly exurban-to-rural southwestern Pennsylvania district, he is a Democrat. While registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in that district, that is a holdover from the days when steel and unions dominated. In recent years, Republicans have carried the district in presidential and local elections. Republican Tim Murphy represented the district from 2002 to 2017 — Democrats did not even field a candidate in 2014 and 2016 — until the married, anti-abortion congressman had to quit after urging his girlfriend to have an abortion. (A thought experiment: If the congressman’s name had been Trump, would he have weathered the storm?)

There can be no question about Lamb’s Democratic bona fides. He may not be as progressive as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, but he is no Republican. He holds nuanced positions on issues that divide the parties. Lamb opposes limiting magazine clips or banning assault weapons, but he supports expanded background checks. He endorses Virginia Senator Tim Kaine’s view of abortion: Personally against, but believes it should be legally available. He favors “new leadership” in Congress, meaning he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. He proved a fierce defender of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, programs conservatives vow to gut. He opposed the GOP’s recent tax cut as a giveaway to the rich. He supports Obamacare.

Instead of trying to spin Lamb’s election as a victory for the GOP, Republicans would be better served figuring out how to avoid similar defeats. There are more than 100 House seats now held by Republicans that Trump won by a narrower margin than the Pennsylvania 18th. Lamb’s victory provides a template for moderate Democrats trying to oust Republican incumbents. Recent Democratic successes — Tuesday’s congressional election, a senatorial pickup in Alabama, a number of flipped seats in state legislatures — suggest two things: First, Republican policies are not resonating with the public; second, Trump’s narrow popularity with his base — with an approval rating hovering in the mid-thirties — does not translate into electoral victory.

GOP policies appeared to have little impact on voters Tuesday. The Republican tax cut had so little appeal that the party’s candidate stopped touting it during the race. Lamb defused the tariff issue by supporting Trump’s imposition of a rate hike on imported steel. Tariffs are a tricky political issue. Probably more Democrats support protective measures than Republicans, and free trade receives more backing from Republicans. On protectionism, Trump is a Republican outlier as can be seen by the opposition of most members of the GOP in Congress to the steel tariffs.

President Donald Trump campaigning for Republican Rick Saccone, who lost the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

Trump campaigned twice for Lamb’s opponent, and a number of Trumpian surrogates — including Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump, Jr. — appeared in the district before election day. Trump supporters like to claim the president had an affect on the outcome since polls showed Lamb up by five points but he only won by a hair. That is debatable, but what is not arguable is that Republicans have held this seat since 2002 and Trump carried it by 20 points in 2016. None of that was enough to defeat Lamb. “Obviously, this is a very tough environment for Republicans,” said Courtney Alexander, a Republican spokesperson. That understatement, and not the Trump-Ryan spin, should be a wakeup call for Republicans. 

If Republican policies are not popular and if Trump cannot carry candidates to victory, why are GOP leaders sticking with him? Speaker Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and all the rest must know Trump is unfit for the position he holds. They have held their noses and supported the president because they believed he could deliver legislatively and electorally. So far, legislatively means the unpopular tax cuts. And, if the party continues to lose elections with Trump as its putative leader, what incentive is there to stay with him?

One has to be blind not to see the blue wave coming. And, that is not spin!

Posted March 16, 2018

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