Donald Trump interrupted his Friday campaign speech on behalf of Alabama senator Luther Strange to engage in a digression about the decline of football in general and the protests of Colin Kaepernick in particular, following up with a barrage of tweets on the subject over the following days that also rescinded a White House invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. As with many such developments, the initial news media response (to briefly paraphrase: "?!?!?!?") soon evolved into a discussion of whether or not Trump's attacks amounted to smart politics. Some observers judged the president's actions a mistake, while others argued that Trump's behavior reflected an effective strategy of harnessing racial tension and opposition to social change within the American public. "This kind of thing," wrote Rich Lowry of National Review, "is why he's president."
Because much of our punditry views politics primarily through an electoral frame, "smart politics" is generally defined as an action that helps one party win popular support at the expense of the other. It's quite possible that a majority of the voting population sides with Trump on the Kaepernick issue, especially if Trump's preferred interpretation of the protests—that players who demonstrate during the pregame national anthem performance are "disrespecting" the flag, the troops, and the nation—wins broad acceptance.
But politics is about more than winning elections, and the Republican Party's current problems have little to do with the party's relative strength compared to the Democrats. Today brought three significant developments in the world of Republican politics, all carrying relatively minimal implications for electoral competition between the parties—but with much more serious (negative) consequences for the GOP's deteriorating capacity to govern.
The first development was the Senate Republican conference's public acknowledgement that the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill lacks sufficient support to win a vote on the floor. From a purely electoral calculation, congressional Republicans are probably better off abandoning their "repeal and replace" efforts than enacting a law that would result in millions of Americans losing health insurance coverage beginning in the 2018 election year. But the inability to pass legislation through Congress addressing the party's top domestic priority is not only a source of embarrassment for Republican leaders and exasperation for Republican activists, but also represents a significant sunk cost of time and energy over the past nine months that could have been devoted instead to taxes, infrastructure, or other more promising matters.
The second big news item of the day was Senator Bob Corker's announcement that he would not seek a third term in 2018. Corker's retirement does little to change the electoral math—Tennessee is decidedly inhospitable territory for Democratic candidates even without a popular incumbent on the ballot—but removes a capable, pragmatic, leadership-friendly senator from a Republican conference in need of legislative heft.
Third, former state supreme court justice Roy Moore easily defeated Strange, the appointed incumbent, in the Alabama Republican Senate primary. Thanks to Alabama's deep red partisan alignment, Moore is unlikely to jeopardize the Republican Party's hold on the seat in the December general election. But his future arrival in the Senate will create its own set of difficulties for the GOP. Moore ran as an open opponent of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and his propensity for attention-getting stunts and remarks is likely to put his fellow Republican senators in an awkward position on a regular basis. Moore's demonstrated level of policy command also suggests that he will not turn out to be a legislative workhorse in Washington.
Moore's triumph over Strange will also further damage the already-faltering relationship between Trump and McConnell. Trump will be predictably furious at Strange's defeat after he endorsed, and campaigned for, the senator in part at McConnell's urging, and will seek to shift blame for this embarrassment onto a Senate leader whom he already holds responsible for failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. An intensifying civil war within the Republican Party between its two most powerful leaders, or between "insider" and "outsider" factions of conservatives, bodes ill for the chances of productive, functional governance over the next 16 months.
Perhaps a public appeal increasingly centered on themes of cultural and nationalist nostalgia simultaneously helps a party win elections and renders it inherently ill-equipped for the process of governing. At the least, the results tonight confirm that the potency of popular rebellion from the right remains alive and well within the Republican Party in the post-2016 era. As I remarked to Jeff Stein of Vox, "You might have thought that a Trump presidency and having Republicans control Congress would relieve that pressure valve—that with Hillary and Obama off the scene, some of that anti-establishment, anti-Republican leadership sentiment would dissipate. What we're seeing in Alabama is that that's not the case." The next question is to what extent Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, throws his own lot in with the rebels.