We are often told that the outrageous grifts and chaos of Trump’s Washington is “the new normal” (per John Podhoretz et al.) and “modern day presidential” (per Trump himself); that, as we were assured after 9-11, Everything Has Changed and we cannot hope to return to the old ways, so we had better, as Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway advised, “get used to it.”
A large number of American voters, however, seem not to be getting the message. While Trump and his Republicans rampage, the Democratic Party has been winning elections — sometimes, as in its defeat of Roy Moore, against heavy odds. And on March 13, Democratic congressional nominee Conor Lamb eked out an astonishing special election win in the 18th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, a district represented by the GOP for the past fifteen years that Trump took by twenty points in 2016.
Some conservatives frankly acknowledged this as a bad omen for the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential race. But many devoted themselves instead to excuses — chief among these that the PA-18 voters had been the victims of a hoax: Lamb was too attractive a candidate to possibly be a real Democrat.
The most popular version of this, peddled by House Speaker Paul Ryan, was that Lamb “ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti–Nancy Pelosi conservative” — notwithstanding that Lamb is undisguisedly pro-choice (or, as Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review put it, “his position is just as extreme as that of the most pro-abortion members of his party”), as well as pro-union, pro–Social Security/Medicare, pro-Obamacare, etc. Also, there was an actual Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, on the PA-18 ballot who, abetted by over $10 million in outside donations, ran hard against the allegedly Republican-esque Lamb.
Liberals and even some conservatives dismissed Ryan’s claim, but his argument was carried forward by troops eager to make lemonade out of bullshit — like Bill Mitchell (“The race there is now tied because the Democrat pretended to be a Republican. Once again, PA-18 voted TRUMP YUGE”), the Republican Party (after weeks of denouncing Lamb as a “mouthpiece for Democratic leadership”), and eventually even Trump himself.
“Conor Lamb: Lunchpail Democrat, Trumpian Republican,” claimed Matt Purple at the American Conservative. Purple said voters had been “unimpressed” by GOP candidate Saccone “as the president reportedly was” — an interesting characterization, considering Trump made a nationally televised campaign appearance for Saccone just three days before the election.
“The 2016 roles were flipped,” said Purple: Now Saccone “seemed the regular-order politician, flush with money from distant grandees and remote apparatuses, supportive of right-to-work laws that many unions regard as an existential threat,” while Lamb was the “bright young thing who wanted reform and nothing more.” You surely must remember Trump campaigning as a reform-minded bright young thing. Why, he and Lamb are practically twins — and Saccone’s like Hillary, without the crowds screaming to lock him up.
“Lamb’s biography includes some experiences that voters might be more likely to associate with right-of-center candidates — attended Catholic schools, four years in the Marines, four years as a federal prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney,” wrote National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “When people picture a generic Republican congressional candidate, they probably picture someone who looks like Lamb — tall, blue blazer and tie, close-cropped haircut.” Democrats, on the other hand, have man buns, wear fringe vests and ratty bell-bottoms, and reek of weed and premarital sex.
This camouflage, Geraghty suggested, even took in pro-life voters, who you’d think would be more inquisitive. “In some voters’ eyes, Lamb looked and sounded like the kind of guy who would be pro-life,” he wrote, “and the candidate was happy to leave that misperception in place.”
Kate Braestrup of Ricochet acknowledged that Lamb wasn’t really anti-abortion, “but he was very willing to be perceived as such,” she italicized. Again, I’m surprised pro-life voters didn’t read the campaign literature more carefully, or at least notice Saccone’s “pro-life champion” ads.
This meant, Braestrup went on, that “like Obama pretending to believe that marriage should be limited to the straight to get elected, Lamb is a hypocrite.” But, she argued, that was a good thing, at least for the right-to-life movement: “If the wind-that-carries-cash began blowing a smidge harder in the other direction, [Lamb] would bend, just as Obama got bent (!) about same-sex marriage.” Maybe pro-life peeps can get up a Kickstarter to bribe Lamb to vote their way.
The original White Working Class Whisperer herself, Salena Zito, tweeted, “I’ve been preaching for years Democrats need this kind of candidate.” Zito had apparently sniffed the direction of the wind a few days before the election, and wrote then that “when your message is simply I am for new leadership and cleaning up Washington, and you look like you just walked out of an Orvis catalog, you are going to connect with voters on both sides of the aisle.” So Lamb’s upscale–clothing catalogue conservatism — campaigning in an ensemble that just screamed, “I’m secretly pro-life!” — had made Trumpsters fall in love with him.
There were other, dumber excuses. Fred Lucas of the Daily Signal attributed Lamb’s victory in part to “Libertarian Votes” because one Drew Miller got more than 1,300 votes on the Libertarian ticket in that election, exceeding the margin of victory. (It is one of the more amusing ironies of American politics that libertarians, though virtually indistinguishable from conservatives, so enjoy playing Judean People’s Front to the GOP’s People’s Front of Judea.)
At Conservative Review, Daniel Horowitz actually wrote that Saccone and the Republican Party in general weren’t being conservative enough, accusing them of “championing, validating, and exalting every principle of the Left, from guns and immigration to health care” and of “pushing gun control.” Maybe Horowitz was talking about the Republican Party in some distant corner of the DC Multiverse. Others, like the Washington Free Beacon, just tried the old Citizen Kane “Fraud at Polls” approach.
However they looked at it, the GOP was down another heretofore safe seat, and that experience — along with dozens of such defeats since Trump’s 2016 win, and a new poll showing Democrats with a ten-point generic lead in congressional preference — has to be nerve-racking for them. Republicans can still count on gerrymandering to help them negate this advantage, but the courts have not always been helpful in this regard, and the grand (but largely inept) vote-theft scheme of Trump and Kris Kobach seems stalled for the moment at least.
Still, there’s eight months left till the midterms — and two more years after that till the big one. Down-ticket Republicans probably can’t get far out of their own way, and Trump seems unwilling to exert himself much to help them. But when the 2020 countdown clock really starts up and his own ass is on the line, don’t count Trump out — he has the power to declare war, which, as we learned in 2003, can help keep an incompetent and unscrupulous leader in power. But for now, enjoy the respite.