Donald Trump won’t get to reset his frenzied presidency two months before the critical midterm elections — no matter how smoothly Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings go this week.
The president was still in his first 100 days when Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, joined him in a Rose Garden swearing-in ceremony that marked the president’s first major victory in Washington — a development that instilled in many Republicans the hope that their leader could be made to fit the traditional image of a commander in chief.
Story Continued Below
It came just as Trump was winning bipartisan praise for ordering strikes on a Syrian air base to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on civilians — a decisive move that showed Trump countering Russian interests.
The president had, at that point, fired a national security adviser, but he hadn’t yet dismissed FBI Director James Comey and wasn’t yet facing an independent counsel investigation. He’d sparked multiple court challenges with his original travel ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim countries, but still had hopes of passing Obamacare repeal, a core campaign promise. He was mostly refraining from tweeting anything outrageous or offensive — a demonstration of restraint that generated its own headlines.
But Trump’s ability to positively shape the narrative of his presidency has dissipated as he’s torched international alliances and escalated his habit of beefing with enemies — including his own Justice Department appointees — on Twitter.
His aides have grown resigned to the idea that he essentially says and does what he wants, making attempts at coordinated messaging pointless and often leaving officials to make public statements that he subsequently disregards or directly contradicts.
Views of his job performance have hardened, hovering in the low- to mid-40s ever since his early months in office. The latest NBC poll had Trump at 46 percent, close to what he got in the 2016 election.
“His numbers are his numbers, and voters either love him or hate him,” said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard.
While Trump boasts about his popularity in historic terms — comparing himself favorably to “Abe Lincoln with the big hat” at a recent rally — his average approval since assuming office is in fact the lowest of any modern president since the 1940s. “As he reminds us daily, his personal brand and temperament won’t let him change,” said Tim Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Along with tax reform, Trump frequently cites the Gorsuch confirmation as a top success — despite at one point expressing second thoughts about the pick. But Gorsuch’s efficient hearing reflected the fact that nothing during the Trump era has unified Senate Republicans and the White House more than stocking the courts with conservative judges.
It went smoothly in large part because Trump had delegated all but the final selection to others, and once he made his choice, he’s uncharacteristically largely stayed out of the way and let senior staff and allies do the work of seeing the confirmation through.
Trump told aides and allies in the wake of the Kavanaugh pick he would like to see a repeat of the no-drama Gorsuch hearings as both parties look for an extra edge heading into the final stretch of midterm campaigning.
The president and top administration officials argue that Kavanaugh’s legal bona fides and polished résumé will weaken any objections to his confirmation, and believe they can cast Democrats as anti-Trump obstructionists. Addressing supporters last month in West Virginia, Trump rhetorically asked: “How do you vote against him?”
Eight strategists from both parties involved in crafting Supreme Court talking points for the midterms said in interviews with POLITICO that the Kavanaugh hearings will break through with voters, with coverage chewing up hours of cable news time.
Republicans anticipate that even in a noisy, convoluted media environment, conservative voters will be watching closely how their nominee performs. And they expect that if the Democrats overreach, it will at least temporarily increase the intensity among the GOP base, which has been one of the party’s more significant challenges in special elections. “This has keyed them in and ginned them up,” is how one senior Republican campaign official put it.
“The hope is that this will play a positive role for Republicans in the midterms when Trump is not specifically on the ballot,” said veteran Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Both sides want a fight, but the die is cast. Kavanaugh will be confirmed, so the only question is how many Democrats vote for him?”
But Democrats see an opening to capitalize on what they described as a partisan realignment taking place among college-educated white voters over social issues, particularly abortion. Voter concerns about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s longevity and the possibility that Trump could score a third seat have only escalated, said one Democratic strategist working in several swing congressional races.
Others took further aim at how the hearings might help their GOP opponents, ridiculing the party for predicting, incorrectly, that tax cuts were going to be enough to sufficiently juice GOP turnout. “Anyone hoping a Supreme Court nomination will save the GOP has totally lost their grip on reality,” said Joshua Karp, who is working on Senate campaigns for the Democratic opposition-research shop American Bridge.
But Republicans continue to see upside in the hearings — contending that social issues are way down in suburban district polling. As one of the strategists concluded: “I’m old enough to remember when Merrick Garland would be a rallying cry for Hillary supporters.”