Second: Obamacare lives. The largest policy failure of the past year is the GOP’s inability to dismantle any part of Obamacare besides the individual mandate, after Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Trump, and the rest of the party had campaigned against it for the past seven years. As I’ve written before, this is a defeat with many fathers, but Trump bears blame on several levels: first, because his campaign never built support for a plan but instead convinced Hill Republicans that there was no likelihood of needing one because Hillary would beat him; second, because Trump pressured Ryan and McConnell to delay an Obamacare-repeal vote until a replacement was ready, rather than repeal the old system to force everyone to the table to design a new one; and third, because his lack of public credibility or presidential leadership left the congressional caucuses to fend for themselves without a meaningful bully pulpit to counter the likes of Jimmy Kimmel.
Third: Demoralized Republicans. The first tangible trouble sign of Trump’s impact on the party is the unusually high number of congressional Republicans retiring in 2018 and the struggles the party has faced in candidate recruitment. How much these difficulties play out in election losses remains to be seen, but there are real, present costs: retiring senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, for example, feel less compelled to play ball with the president’s legislative agenda and to defend his administration, and retirements have a cascading effect on fundraising and encouraging the other side. Of course, some of these discouraged Republican officeholders don’t want to run for reelection in a tough environment, but others would probably have retired in 2016 if they had expected Trump to win and run Washington, and are retiring because being part of Trump’s party is a miserable experience.
Perception in politics is a reality all its own, and the perception of White House chaos and electoral impending doom is important regardless of its basis in fact, in addition to being a self-fulfilling prophecy.