The Memo: GOP frets as Trump squanders advantages

Republicans are more worried than ever about a lack of discipline from President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE and his administration as the 2020 election looms larger on the horizon.

A new outbreak of concern was sparked this week, when the political benefits from a favorable account of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s findings were undercut by several distractions.

The administration’s renewed push to undo the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — without any clear replacement in mind — was an unwelcome surprise to most Republicans.

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Another self-inflicted injury came when Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosBiden Education Department hires vocal proponent of canceling student debt Erik Prince involved in push for experimental COVID-19 vaccine: report Biden administration reverses Trump-era policy that hampered probes of student loan companies MORE defended a budget proposal to cut federal funding for the Special Olympics. DeVos was overruled by Trump, who revealed his decision when speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. 

The president finished the week reigniting the immigration debate, saying on Friday that there was "a very good likelihood" that he would close the southern border in the coming days. Trump’s hard-line position on immigration is popular with his base but receives a much rockier reception among the broader electorate.

Put it all together and it’s easy to understand why Republicans are unsettled.

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said that a lack of focus from Trump was "one of the most frustrating things for Republicans" because it meant that neither the president nor the party reaped the dividend from positive news.

Heye contended that the Trump administration’s record on the economy, particularly jobs, should be a massive political plus. But it is one upon which they have failed to fully capitalize.

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By the time each month’s employment data is released, he said, "we already know we are not going to spend a lot of time on the jobs numbers because Trump has tweeted something or has attacked somebody or otherwise done something that is very clearly going to consume the media’s attention and take it away from jobs and wages."

A different Republican consultant, who worked closely on the 2018 midterm elections, lamented the renewed focus on health care in particular.

"A fight over health care in no way helps Republicans," this source said. "The more you talk about it, the more it stings."

The consultant drew a parallel between the focus on health care now and the emphasis on immigration in the closing days of the 2018 campaign, "which cost some House seats, demonstrably." 

Health care surfaced anew because of a decision by the Department of Justice to seek to have the entire law struck down as unconstitutional.

Republicans say they have deeply held objections to the ACA on policy grounds. But the idea of repealing the 2010 law in the middle of an election cycle strikes almost none of them as a good idea.

Doing so would create massive uncertainty for the 20 million people whose coverage is linked to the ACA, and the GOP has had long-standing difficulty formulating any workable alternative.

Popular provisions within the law — banning insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, for example — would be trashed if it were struck down. 

Trump is showing no signs of backing away, however. On Friday, he reiterated his view that "ObamaCare is a disaster." The president promised a plan that he said would be "so much better" and insisted that "we’re going to always take care of pre-existing conditions," according to pool reports.

There are no details about what that plan would look like.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Ky.) signaled his lack of enthusiasm for the idea on Thursday, when he told Politico, "I look forward to seeing what the president is proposing and what he can work out with the Speaker." 

The chances of Trump and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance McCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (D-Calif.) finding a mutually agreeable replacement for the ACA are close to nonexistent. 

"There is no appetite in the Senate for Republicans to take the lead on health care in the near future," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Mackowiak, like many Republicans, believes the 2020 election is winnable for Trump — but that victory requires a well-defined message. 

"The president is in a position where he needs to be highly disciplined and highly focused over the next year and a half," he said. "Right now, either outcome [in the election] is possible."

Some Republicans take a measure of solace from the current state of the Democratic Party. 

They contend that the party is moving to the left — noting not just the prominence of presidential candidates such as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause and wipe out K per borrower Senate confirms Biden's Air Force secretary MORE (D-Mass.) but the energy around other left-wing figures, notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa JD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians MORE (D-N.Y.). 

The rhetoric that delights progressive activists could doom the Democrats to defeat with the country at large, Republicans insist.

Many in the GOP also stress that Trump scores more highly on the economy than in other policy areas. The issue can often be determinative in presidential elections.

A CNN-SSRS poll this month indicated that 51 percent of adults approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, while 42 percent disapproved.

The poll tested five other topics — immigration, foreign affairs, the federal budget, taxes and the Mueller probe, which was then ongoing — and a plurality disapproved of Trump’s handling of every one. 

That’s just one of the reasons Republicans would love a controlled, on-message Trump. 

But most admit the reality is very different.

"Clearly, he is not made that way," said Heye.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.