Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist for President Trump and well known fitness aficionado, is on the war path. No not against greed, corruption, or government inefficiencies. Nope, not even against Democrats. Instead, Bannon is pursuing congressional Republicans he deems “establishment.”
Unfortunately, his definition of establishment is a little too vague. In declaring his “season of war” at the Values Voter Summit last Saturday, Bannon stated he and his team are fielding candidates to challenge every Senate Republican (excluding Ted Cruz) up for reelection next year. What that means is that every GOP Senator from moderate Susan Collins to libertarian Rand Paul could face a Bannon backed primary opponent. But Bannon’s move is ignorant, shortsighted and extremely counterproductive. Instead of bolstering Trump for the the next two years, he’ll most likely end up handicapping him, by enabling the Democrats.
This is unintentional of course. Bannon is an alt-righter who’s unique strategy propelled Trump to the White House last November. Now, following the dysfunction of the Republican controlled Congress, he believes he can use this same strategy to strengthen the next two years of Trumps term. But Bannon is undermining the GOP’s efforts to expand their majority. Instead of pursuing vulnerable Democrats in states that voted for Trump, like Senators Jon Tester of Montana or Joe Donnelly of Indiana, he’s pursuing vulnerable Republicans in swing states, like Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona or Dean Heller of Nevada. What this shows is that instead of forming a coalition by finding common ground between the different factions of the Republican party, Bannon would rather risk nuking their majority by trying to replace anyone he disagrees with. And that risk is very real.
Congressional midterm elections are notoriously difficult for the incumbent party. Only twice in the past century has the sitting president’s party gained seats in both the House and the Senate: the Democrats under FDR in 1934 as a result of the Great Depression, and George W Bush in 2002 as a result of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. This means that, if history is any indication, 2018 could be a rough year for Republicans in both chambers. Bannon will likely make things even worse for Trump & Company, but a few scenarios are possible, descending by the odds that they occur.
The most likely outcome of Bannon’s widespread purging attempt will be a total meltdown. In this scenario, his efforts to replace Republicans he doesn’t like will cause devastating divisions within the party and result in the Democrats gaining control of the Senate, or more likely, the House. If this happens, Trump would be playing defense for the second half of his term.
“Steve Bannon is trying to elect Democrats.” said Alex Conant, former aid to George Bush, during a CNN interview. Following the Republicans loss of the House in 2006, Conant remembers a non-stop flow of investigations, subpoenas, and inquiries into the Bush White House from Democrats in Congress. None of these legal challenges every materialized into actual charges against anyone in the Bush administration, but it shows how crippling congressional opposition can be to a presidents agenda. Bush accomplished next to nothing he wanted to during the last two years of his presidency.
Trump is an even more vulnerable position than Bush. Not only have the Republicans not passed a single piece of legislation to fulfill any of Trump’s campaign promises, including repealing Obamacare and passing tax reform (they’re working on it), but there’s also a pesky ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign and
their potential connections with Russia. To top it off, Trump faces the lowest approval rating of any modern president. This trifecta may motivate a Democratic House to impeach the president. While it probably wouldn’t pass the Senate, barring any major revelations, it would be terrible for a president seeking to be reelected in 2020.
The second most likely scenario would be a halfway successful Bannon creating even more dysfunction in Congress by partially installing his crop of candidates. After all, it’s highly unlikely Bannon would be able to get every candidate of his choice through the primaries and onto the Capitol. If this happens, it would be the establishment vs Bannon vs Democrats. As we’ve seen with Obamacare repeal, the existing divisions between conservative and moderate Republicans creates enough tension to tank major legislation. Imagine how much worse it would be with conservatives, moderates, and alt-righters all in separate corner.
And yes, they would be alt-righter. We’ve already gotten a taste of the type of candidate Bannon is looking for, and it isn’t what Trump wants. In last month’s special Senate race in Alabama, incumbent Luther Strange, a typical conservative GOPer was defeated in the primary by Roy Moore, a man who once likened gay marriage to bestiality. Bannon’s Great America political action committee spent copious amounts supporting Moore over Strange. If Bannon succeeds in other deep red states, but fails in swing states, he’ll further divide Congress.
If Bannon pulls off a miracle, and somehow manages to replace the whole of Congress, he’ll have a complete caucus of his own candidates and give Trump the functionality he needs to pass whatever he wants. Of course, this is incredible unlikely to transpire, but a small possibility exists.
The danger here is that while Bannon may like candidates like Roy Moore, America does not. If Congress consists entirely of extremists like Roy Moore, come 2020 Trump will most certainly face a Democratic party that looks far for sensible for voters.
The best chance for Trump and congressional Republicans, is also the least likely to occur. The GOP has been doing just fine without Bannon, and going into 2018 they’ll do even better without him. If Trump can somehow get Bannon to end his war path, he can let the GOP strategize in the most effective manner possible, and maybe even secure Trump a supermajority in the Senate.
Unfortunately, the President has tried and failed to negotiate a truce with Bannon. He now finds himself tiptoeing between his former chief strategist and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who stated that Bannon is threatening to destabilize Trump’s administration.
Whatever is to come of Bannon’s “war” the only thing that’s guaranteed is Trump’s continued dysfunction at the hands of people he rely’s on most.