To understand the discouraging plight for Republicans heading into the 2018 midterm elections, it might help to recall a joke popular in Spain in 1975, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco, that nation's long-ruling and ruthless dictator, lingered for endless weeks on his deathbed.
Alejandro: "There is good news, and there is bad news."
Carlos: "Tell me the good news first, and then tell me the bad news."
Alejandro: "The good news is that Franco is dead. The bad news is that you have to tell him."
As of today, there are no brave souls in President Donald Trump's inner, or even outer, circle volunteering to mention to him that the most recent four times that majority control of the House of Representatives switched from one party to the other — 1954, 1994, 2006 and 2010 — were after midterm elections. In the presidential election of 2016, Trump was able to win 46.4 percent of the popular vote despite the fact that, according to exit polls, only 33 percent of voters believed that he was "honest and trustworthy" — at least in part because only 36 percent of those same voters judged Democrat Hillary Clinton to be honest and trustworthy. In their presidential selection, voters make a comparative choice between two competing nominees.
But midterm elections are entirely different; a midterm election is a straightforward referendum on the sitting president — Democrat or, in the current case, Republican. That's what it was in 2010 on President Barack Obama, who had a favorable job rating of 45 percent on Election Day, when his Democrats took a shellacking and lost the House. Four years earlier, President George W. Bush's 42 percent job approval rating on Election Day enabled the Democrats to take House majority control from his Republicans. And President Bill Clinton? His 1994 Election Day job rating stood at a semi-respectable 46 percent favorable, but when the votes were counted later that night, the Republicans had in fact seized the House majority from Clinton's Democrats.
So who will be the truly courageous "Carlos" in Trump world who will dare to risk permanent exile to the outer darkness by speaking blunt truth to the all-powerful Donald and revealing that Republicans' condition is frankly critical heading into 2018? Indeed, a poll by the rigorously nonpartisan Pew Research Center has found that just 32 percent of Americans approve of the job President Trump is doing, while a landslide 63 percent disapprove. Those numbers — one-third or more lower than the ratings Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton carried into midterms when their parties were routed — mean that if you're a GOP candidate in 2018 in a remotely competitive congressional district, you will be carrying a political deadweight around your neck. The president, for you, will be a political albatross. As former heavyweight champ Joe Louis correctly predicted, before knocking him out, about Billy Conn, his speedy and elusive challenger, "he can run, but he can't hide."
It's not the nation's economy — about which American voters are now more positive and upbeat than at any time since before 9/11; it is the man who is the face of the Republican Party. It is the president's constant and exhausting tweeting, which unnerves even his loyalists. Donald Trump's fellow citizens overwhelmingly judge him as lacking the temperament they expect in a president, the honesty they value in a president and the ability to inspire the nation as presidents they've admired have been able to do. The Republicans' political problem cannot be remedied by some dramatic policy initiative or personnel shake-up. We are talking instead about completely changing the personality and character of a 71-year-old man who, from all available evidence, is quite pleased with his personality and temperament. 2018 Republicans are now on political life-support. Who will tell them?
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.