The president’s State of the Union address confirmed a suspicion that had been building since the end of the last congressional session: The Republican Party pretty much plans to stand pat legislatively going into the midterm elections. Sure, there will be maneuvering over immigration policy, possibly (but by no means certainly) leading to a grand bargain involving Dreamers, enforcement resources, and the administration’s desire for sharp reductions in legal immigration. We’ll hear talk about an infrastructure package, though the president’s proposal to rely mostly on private and state/local spending in that area is beginning to look like lip service. So long as Congress can manage to keep the federal government open, there may not be a lot of significant votes, other than those aimed to put Democrats on record with controversial positions on hot-button items like abortion.
Other than risk avoidance, there’s an additional advantage to a do-nothing legislative agenda for 2018: It eliminates any inhibitions Team Trump might have felt about going after centrist Democrats up for reelection with a clawhammer. There’s no reason, after all, to be nice to members of Congress whose votes you do not need. And indeed, it’s possible, as Trump himself showed Tuesday night, to promote “bipartisanship” as a simple demand that Democrats cross the aisle and support the GOP’s agenda, exposing themselves otherwise as crypto-lefties imprisoned by the Democratic base and beholden to Cryin’ Chuck, Pocahontas, and Crazy Bernie.
And we are already seeing signs of this new willingness to go after Democrats running for reelection in red territory by tagging them as lockstep liberals. Indeed, Vice-President Mike Pence has hatched a 2018 strategy for himself that involves barnstorming around the country in maximum attack mode, as Politico reports:
Vice President Mike Pence is launching one of the most aggressive campaign strategies in recent White House history: he will hopscotch the country over the next three months, making nearly three dozen stops that could raise tens of millions of dollars for House and Senate Republicans, all while promoting the party’s legislative accomplishments …
Pence vowed to take sharp aim at congressional Democrats in red states who oppose the president’s agenda.
Indeed, he announced this plan from a GOP retreat in West Virginia, and took occasion to go after that state’s Democratic senator Joe Manchin on the spot:
On Wednesday, he used a public event here to remind West Virginia voters that “Joe voted no” on tax cuts — a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
And then Pence really unloaded on the man the White House has so often tried to woo in the past year, scorning him for lack of cooperation on Obamacare repeal, Planned Parenthood defunding, and the border wall. Manchin shot back by tying Pence to the swamp:
You can expect this war of words to continue, and now future Pence targets like Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri may soon have to decide whether to ignore the attacks or respond with more-in-sorrow-than-anger umbrage like Manchin’s or something with a bit more bite.
What’s clear, though, is that Pence and other administration officials have been liberated from any concerns about the legislative fallout from attacking potential bipartisan allies. They’ll worry about that, if at all, in 2019.