Keep Trump off the Trail in 2018

December 21, 2017

The White House “is planning a full-throttle campaign to plunge the president into the midterm elections,” according to the Washington Post. Aides insist that President Trump “wants to travel extensively and hold rallies” and “is looking forward to spending much of 2018 campaigning.” If true, this plan should be shelved. Making the midterms about Donald Trump is a very bad idea.

To begin with, he has the worst ratings in his first year of any modern president. Mr. Trump’s approval in the Gallup poll is 35%. By comparison, President Obama ended his first year at 50% and Bill Clinton at 54%, and both watched their party get shellacked in the midterms. Even George H.W. Bush, at 73%, saw a few seats lost in 1990.

If Mr. Trump barnstorms for Republican candidates, his unpopularity will rub off on them. Alabama’s recent Senate race may be a special case because of the accusations against Roy Moore. But the fact remains that the president could not carry Mr. Moore to victory. The 1.3 million votes cast in this single special election exceeded the 1.2 million ballots in Alabama’s 2014 midterms. Democratic turnout nearly reached presidential-election levels without a corresponding increase for the GOP.

While Mr. Trump draws energy from adoring crowds at his rallies, those unscripted moments are also when he’s most likely to generate unnecessary controversy. In July he trashed his predecessor at the nonpartisan Boy Scout Jamboree; at an August rally in Phoenix he defended his remark that “both sides” were to blame for violence at the Charlottesville white-power protests; and at a September rally for Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, Mr. Trump said that he “might’ve made a mistake” by endorsing him. What candidate wants to deal with that kind of fallout?

If the White House tries to re-create last year’s presidential campaign in 2018 by holding one raucous rally after another, it will make Mr. Trump feel beloved while magnifying Republican losses.

If the president wants to help his party, he should lower his political profile. Early next year, he should raise gobs of money for candidates at events closed to the press. Then in the summer and fall, he should attend fundraisers for the Republican National Committee, the state parties and the GOP’s campaign committees, again closed to the press.

Most of his time should be devoted not to politics but policy, especially things that will boost his approval numbers. The fact remains that Mr. Trump’s personal behavior weighs down his ratings. His policies—tax cuts, deregulation, energy exploration, strong defense, seriousness on immigration—are more popular then he is, especially when they are explained without his name attached.

Republicans cannot keep Congress simply by appealing to Mr. Trump’s most avid fans. The party must unite an energized base with independent voters. It must also attract those Americans who were skeptical about Mr. Trump in 2016 but temporarily set aside their doubts to vote for the change he represented and against the prospect of Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.

The quip that the way forward is to “Let Trump be Trump” only gives advisers an excuse to ignore the president’s divisive rhetoric, needless personal attacks, narcissistic focus on ephemera, indefensible mangling of facts, and childlike need for constant praise.

A better goal would be to “turn Donald Trump into President Trump.” The hope (admittedly rather remote now) is that Mr. Trump could somehow work to become a unifying leader and let go of his seething grievances. Then he could explain what he’s done and wants to do, emphasizing how his agenda will positively affect the lives of ordinary people.

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Mr. Trump should also play down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The rumors of the president’s rage about its unfairness only encourage Democrats and their media allies to pile on, while causing many Americans to wonder what he’s got to hide. The less said about Mr. Mueller and the more confidence expressed about the investigation’s outcome, the better.

Next fall, when the 2018 campaign heats up, the president should go to Europe or Asia. Mr. Trump’s foreign trips have shown that, like most presidents, he appears more substantial and less partisan when he’s abroad.

If Republicans are to have any hope of holding Congress after the midterms, Mr. Trump must allow the political spotlight to shine on individual GOP candidates while he does a much better job of tending to his presidential responsibilities. Stepping back from the spotlight will be harder for Mr. Trump than any previous president. But that is the only path to something that approximates a victory for Republicans in 2018.

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