Back in July the American Psychiatric Association encouraged its members to evaluate President Donald Trump’s mental condition without the traditional nuisance of a personal examination. It is time for a more credible evaluation of what disorder is afflicting former presidential adviser Steve Bannon who is calling for a Republican “Civil War” which would doom any possibility of Congressional passage of the Trump agenda in the second half of his term.
A couple pieces of background:
– Bannon was apparently influenced by the The Tea Party revolution as it ricocheted through the Senate from 2010 to 2014. To the objective observer it was a mixed blessing. Led by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, using his Senate Conservatives Fund Political Action Committee, the objective was the unseating of Republican Senators who were insufficiently conservative as well as a few Democrats. Early electoral successes included defeats of Republican incumbents (Mike Lee over Bob Bennett in Utah; Pat Twomey over Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania), defeats of establishment favorites (Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist in Florida; Ted Cruz over David Dewhurst in Texas), and promotion of adequately conservative candidates in primaries for open seats (Rand Paul in Kentucky; Ron Johnson in Wisconsin; Joni Ernst in Iowa; Ben Sasse in Nebraska.) Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory were the Todd Akins (“legitimate rape”) seat in Missouri, the Christine O’Donnell (“not a witch”) seat in Delaware, and the Richard Mourdock (“rape is something that God intended”) seat in Indiana. After the Republicans took control with 54 seats in 2014, the internecine warfare largely subsided.
– Following a stint in the Navy, time as a mid-level manager at Goldman Sachs, and numerous roles in the film and entertainment business, Bannon landed at Breitbart as executive producer after the death of Andrew Breitbart in 2012. Most importantly, he has been a player since 2009 on the team of “quant-nerd” billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, whose network of think tanks, data analytic firms, media outlets, and Political Action Committees promotes the small government, anti-establishment, populist themes central to Bannon and Trump, spending about $40 million in the 2016 election cycle. (Other Mercer favorites include Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and KellyAnne Conway.) Bannon didn’t join the Trump campaign as chief executive until mid-August 2016, and lasted as Trump’s “chief strategist and senior counsellor” until mid-August 2017. In his brief stay he fostered the conflict with Reince Priebus’ establishment Republicans in the West Wing, leaked freely to the press, and wrote the first legally-flawed immigration directive. When fired by General Kelly he returned to Breitbart, and reportedly still talks with President Trump.
Bannon has obviously not digested Otto von Bismark’s observation that “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” He never made the transition from outside bomb thrower to inside policy maker. He would have preferred Richard Mourdock to the highly popular Richard Lugar in 2012; given the opportunity to govern in 2017, he preferred to destroy establishment Republicans; now back on the outside, he has vowed to start a “civil war” to destroy the Republican Senate majority. Finally the Washington Post loves him.
So, what would a normal post-adolescent person do in Bannon’s situation?
1. Chill out. Hang for awhile with the family – three ex-wives; three daughters. Go back to where he had success – Breitbart.
2. Focus energy on the handful of Republicans in the Senate who are opposing the few key things necessary for Trump’s success. John McCain; Rand Paul; Susan Collins; Lisa Murkowski. Find intermediaries, common ground, or credible political threats. Support the president and Senate leadership.
3. Look to the 2018 elections. Rally support for vulnerable Senate Republicans, or work to replace them with stronger candidates. Jeff Flake of Arizona; Dean Heller of Nevada. Focus on the handful of vulnerable Democrats – Joe Donnelly in Indiana; Clair McCaskill in Missouri; John Tester in Montana; Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota; Sherrod Brown in Ohio; Joe Manchin in West Virginia.
4. Lean on the Freedom Caucus in the House to go along with the versions of healthcare, tax, and immigration legislation which can make it through the Senate.
5. Hold the replacement of McConnell until the routine organizing vote in 2019. Get commitments now.
And Bannon’s actual plan: Support primary challengers for all of the Republicans running for reelection to the Senate in 2018, except for Ted Cruz. The problem – all of the incumbents running have supported Trump on healthcare, judicial appointments, administrative appointments, and tax policy. There is no transgression; no upside to replacement. The first casualty ? Luther Strange of Alabama who was appointed to replace Jeff Sessions, losing the primary to the weaker candidate, Roy Moore. Claim credit whenever a moderate Republican is beaten.
That’s the downside. There is a much bigger upside – if the Republicans can pass some legislation – with the Democrats defending 23 seats to the Republicans’ 9, and the Koch brothers’ network planning to spend up to $400 million on the 2018 elections. Even Trump understands the urgency of holding together the slim Senate majority, lunching with the ineffective Mitch McConnell, golfing with Rand Paul, answering McCain with a warning rather than an insult. If Bannon is going to hang around, he needs to at least rise to the Trump standard of sanity.