Opinion: Last week's shooting a boon to Handel, GOP?

Brad Carver, GOP chair for Georgia's 11th Congressional District, told the Washington Post Saturday that the tragic shooting at a congressional baseball practice will give Republicans the advantage in Tuesday's special election in the neighboring 6th District.

I’ll tell you what: I think the shooting is going to win this election for us,” Carver said at a Handel rally. “Because moderates and independents in this district are tired of left-wing extremism. I get that there’s extremists on both sides, but we are not seeing them. We’re seeing absolute resistance to everything this president does. Moderates and independents out there want to give him a chance. Democrats have never given this president a chance.”

"It’s not going to be a blowout. It’ll be close, but we’ll win it," Carver said. "And I really do think the congressional baseball shooting is going to decide the election."

As crass as it is, I get Carver's point. From the beginning, the GOP's strategy in the 6th District has been to convince its base that they and everything they love are under assault by visigoths and vandals, cleverly disguised in the figure of a mild-mannered, buttoned-down Jon Ossoff.  Republican TV ads depict him as a man who wants to import terrorists from Syria and set gangs of black-clad marauders loose on the streets of Roswell to burn and loot. Ossoff "isn't one of us," which by default makes him "one of them," so when one of "them" -- a 66-year-old white male home inspector from Belleville, Ill. -- goes to Washington to shoot up Republican congressmen, it does feed into the siege narrative quite nicely.

On the other hand, though, this notion that the biggest threat to the voters of the 6th District are their fellow Americans helps to explain a lot of what is wrong with this country at the moment. Political disagreements are real and they are important, but they do not turn those who disagree with us into our enemies. That's an especially pertinent point for the older, more conservative voters in the 6th, because in many cases the "them" that they are taught to fear so much includes their own, more liberal sons and daughters.

The GOP message in the 6th is certainly quite different from the message championed by Ossoff, who tells us relentlessly that he's willing to work with anybody to make progress for the American people. I'd also argue that if we're going to bewail the divisiveness that marks modern American politics, no politician other than Newt Gingrich has done more to debase our discourse than has President Trump, and that no one has benefited more from it.

In his comments to the Post, Carver attributes the opposition to Trump to "left-wing extremism," arguing that moderates and independents have been more willing to give the new president a chance and will still rally around Karen Handel. I'm not sure that's an accurate reading, in part because if you're going to define opposition to Trump as left-wing extremism, then almost two-thirds of the country are now left-wing extremists.

In fact, moderates and independents are more fed up with Trump these days than the American electorate in general. Trump's job-approval rating among independents in the most recent Gallup poll was an abysmal 31 percent. That's a significant drop from 42 percent in January, suggesting that many who had "given this president a chance" have quickly grown disenchanted by what they've seen.

In the most recent Reuters poll, 32 percent of independents approve of Trump's performance. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, just 35 percent of independents approve of Trump, dwarfed by the 44 percent that disapproves strongly. With the one exception of Rasmussen, all of the polls show Trump losing substantial backing even among groups once most supportive of him, including his core of white voters with less than a college degree.

I do not see any means of reversing that downward trajectory. Something basic would have to change -- Trump would have to alter his operating style, his personality, much of his White House staff and his basic level of interest in order to turn this thing around, and he shows zero capability for doing any of it. And although many conservatives still resist the idea, the impossibility of change means that at some point down the road, the Republican Party is going to have to break from Trump in order to save itself.

I'll say it again: A Handel win on Tuesday would be a short-term victory for Republicans, accompanied by celebrations and signs of relief.  Likewise, passage of the deeply unpopular House Republican health-care bill was also a short-term victory, accompanied by celebrations and signs of relief, but it has become a millstone for Handel in a district where health care is a major employer.

Like that health-care bill, a Handel win would resolve none of the GOP's problems, and by delaying the inevitable it would make those longer term problems still more difficult and dangerous. The best thing that could happen to the GOP would be to lose this race.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.