Early Returns

Republicans See Opportunity in Trump's Transgender Ban

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Donald Trump's announcement on Twitter that transgender people would be barred from military service was immediately looked at by many pundits as an attempt to deploy a "wedge" issue that then backfired when congressional Republicans, beginning with Alabama's Richard Shelby, dissented from the new administration policy.

Perhaps that's what Trump was trying to do; one "administration official" was quoted as saying the purpose of the policy was electoral, targeting "Democrats in Rust Belt states."

Perhaps. We also heard later that the policy might have been some sort of misguided attempt to free appropriations bills containing funding for Trump's border wall. And beware the clever fallacy: It's certainly possible that Trump just decided to do it on a whim, and White House staffers are coming up with after-the-fact rationalizations for his decision. 

I don't want to try to guess motives here, but I will say that there is another possibility, and it's happening right now in Texas. Republicans have solid majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature here, and are pushing -- so far unsuccessfully -- a "bathroom bill" similar to the one that caused trouble for Republicans in North Carolina. The thing is that Texas Republicans have no need for wedge issues intended to unify Republicans and divide Democrats; there aren't enough Democrats to matter, at least so far. And that's not what's happening, anyway. Instead, one set of Republicans appears to be using transgender discrimination as a wedge issue to divide their own party, on the assumption that hard-core social conservatives would be on the winning side of that divide and business Republicans (who oppose the bathroom bill) would be harmed. 

The ability to do this is at least somewhat related to party polarization in the electorate; if partisans are likely to vote for the nominee in the general election no matter what positions he or she has taken in the nomination fight, then candidates can ignore the general-election consequences of holding overall unpopular positions as long as they get them through the nomination. It's also related to the Republican Party's lack of interest in policy generally. A more policy-driven party would question the substance-free symbolic politics involved in, say, standing up to the fictional threat posed by transgender people in the military or in public restrooms. (Substance-free from the perspective of those who support the restrictions, that is; it's both symbolic and substantive, and quite cruelly so, for the victims of such policies.) 

Even forcing a wedge and taking the minority position within the party might be a successful move for Republican politicians who care most about solidifying their position among the most involved Republicans, who care deeply about supporting the most "conservative" politicians even if they are highly flexible about what counts as "conservative." Having senior congressional Republicans line up against him might be exactly what's needed to convince some activists that the president's policy is a True Conservative one. Yes, that's highly dysfunctional, but that's the Republican Party that Trump finds himself in.

Again, I don't know whether that was what political operatives in the White House or the tweeter in chief were thinking on Wednesday. But if it was, the fact that Shelby, Orrin Hatch and John McCain criticized the decision would be exactly what they were looking for, not evidence it was backfiring. And the fact that the nation has shifted on some issues might be seen as less of a defeat and more of an opportunity. 

1. Erika Franklin Fowler and Sarah E. Gollust at the Monkey Cage on local television news coverage of the Obamacare repeal effort.

2. Dan Drezner speculates about Trump and foreign-affairs crises

3. Good Josh Huder item at Rule 22 on how the health-care process is bad news -- for Republicans

4. Benjamin Wittes on how best to defend the Justice Department: from inside, or outside? 

5. And Nate Silver on where the Russia scandal is headed

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

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