White House

Donald Trump, Paper Tiger

Republicans fear becoming Trump's target. But where's the evidence of long-term political damage to those he's called out in the past?

Fury, without the follow through.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans in Congress and others in the party are apparently concerned that President Donald Trump, or perhaps voters besotted with the president, will target them should they oppose him. The truth is Trump has yet to demonstrate any kind of impressive capacity for inflicting political damage. 

Oh, yes, Trump is clearly capable of tweeting all sorts of nasty things about those he considers his enemies. He won't address their arguments; he'll level petty, personal attacks. No doubt those aren't any fun to deal with. 

And yet, where's the evidence of serious political damage, either from Trump attacks or from Trump voters rallying to their hero?

Take, for example, Marco Rubio. The Florida senator took the full brunt of Trump's attacks last year during the presidential nomination contest. Even if we accept that Trump's attacks are what sunk Rubio's campaign, where is the long-term damage? Republicans begged him to run for re-election after he had previously said he would never do it. The party's voters in Florida rewarded him with an easy nomination, and he then crushed his Democratic opponent in the general election. He does still seem to attract an outsized amount of ridicule from some in the media, but a lot of that preceded Trump's attacks. 

And that's the general pattern. Yes, Trump did, as he constantly reminds us (and himself), defeat over a dozen candidates for the Republican nomination. Even if you give Trump full credit for that -- and the truth is that most of those "he" defeated actually knocked each other out or self-sabotaged -- none of them with the possible exception of Jeb Bush was really damaged by the experience. Most of them had little political standing before the 2016 election cycle, so they're no worse off now. Senators Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz, like Rubio, emerged just as strong after the campaign as they had been going in. It's not even clear that they've lost popularity nationally (none of them have been polled recently), let alone endangered their Senate seats or effectiveness in that chamber. 

Below the presidential campaign level, the evidence for the power of Trump's Twitter account is just as weak. He's gone after Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell; both of them are as secure in their jobs as they've ever been. Senator John McCain continues to feel free to confront the president well over a year since Trump told us he prefers "people who weren't captured." Arizona Republicans renominated McCain after those comments, and re-elected him in November.

Contrary to Trump's braggadocio about revenge, the reality seems to be that he doesn't have enough of an attention span to really pursue his enemies, and he's so susceptible to flattery that anyone who really wants to shake the president's anger can't find it very difficult to do so. See: Ben Carson, whom Trump viciously attacked on the campaign trail before promoting him into his cabinet.  

Or, for that matter, former President Barack Obama, who seemed to have won Trump over just by giving the then-president-elect the respect that his electoral college totals had earned. 

Despite his low overall approval ratings, Trump does remain popular among Republican voters and is likely to stay that way. But so far at least he's shown no ability to inspire threatening primary challenges to Republicans in Congress. That's no surprise; presidents generally don't have the ability to do so. Constituents tend to like their own member of Congress, and presidential interference in that relationship isn't likely to change that. 

Indeed, the lack of follow-through from Trump should embolden Republicans to step away from him without much worry. Quite a few of them did so at various points during the campaign (after his attacks on Khizr Khan, and after the Hollywood Access tape surfaced), some of them quite sharply, without suffering any noticeable punishment from voters. As far as I can tell, none of the 24 Republican lawmakers who have spoken out against the travel ban were greeted back home with angry mobs of Trump supporters, or at least so far drawn primary challenges based on their disloyalty. 

Of course in many cases Republicans will support Trump's legislative agenda because they agree with it -- indeed, in many cases it's more a question of Trump supporting what Hill Republicans want than the other way around. But when they do differ, or when they disagree with what Trump says or policies he espouses, it's probably safe to say so. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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