In several tweets on Thursday, Donald Trump gave up Republicans' greatest weaknesses heading into the midterms: their biggest Achilles heel is how unpopular what they tried to do on health care was, in part, because what they did do on taxes turned out to be such a complete loser.
"All Republicans support people with pre-existing conditions," Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon, "and if they don’t, they will after I speak to them. I am in total support. Also, Democrats will destroy your Medicare, and I will keep it healthy and well!"
What Republicans actually attempted to do and are still gunning for is gutting pre-existing condition coverage. It was not only a centerpiece of the Trumpcare bill they celebrated passing through the House in a Rose Garden ceremony, it's also the very same provision Trump's Justice Department declared unconstitutional in a 180 degree reversal for the agency. In other words, Trump lied. But he didn't stop there. He then projected Mitch McConnell's stated goal—cutting Medicare—onto Democrats, who are in fact fighting to save the critical program.
That deceptive midday tweet was a tell: Hey, forget about all this health care stuff, it's killing us!
What Trump wants everyone to focus on was what he began his day with, devoting three tweets to racist anti-immigrant fear-mongering about a caravan of thousands of Honduran refugees walking toward Mexico, with the ultimate goal of reaching the U.S.
"I am watching the Democrat Party led (because they want Open Borders and existing weak laws) assault on our country by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whose leaders are doing little to stop this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to U.S.," Trump wrote. "The assault on our country at our Southern Border, including the Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in, is far more important to me, as President, than Trade or the USMCA."
Along with warning he might "call up the U.S. military" to stop the refugees from entering the U.S., Trump is now threatening to renege on his warmed over NAFTA trade deal with Mexico and Canada (i.e. USMCA) if Mexico doesn't stop the caravan. In other words, he's willing to kill the trade deals many Americans, including struggling farmers, have been praying for in order to wield immigration as an election issue.
Certainly, immigration is the fight Trump's been longing for—he's convinced it's the silver bullet for Republicans even though every GOP candidate in a high-profile race who has made nativism the centerpiece of their campaign over the past two years has lost. Think GOP Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie last year, or Republican Rick Saccone who lost the PA-18 special election last spring to Democrat Conor Lamb in a district Trump had carried by 20 points.
Last week, reports surfaced that Trump was considering re-upping some form of the family separation policy. Asked about the deliberation by reporters, Trump justified it this way, "If they feel there will be separation, they won't come." In fact, his administration has already kidnapped children from their parents, in some cases permanently, and it has done almost nothing to stem the flow of migrants who are more fearful of being murdered in their own countries than they are of what they face at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Still, at his Montana rally this week, Trump fixated on the refugee caravan, saying the midterms would be "an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense." That is Trump's fervent hope.
And while it might help keep his based energized, it's an issue that clearly cuts both ways. In fact, while illegal immigration was found to be the top issue for 75 percent of GOP voters, only 19 percent of Democratic voters said the same. Meanwhile, 57 percent of Democratic voters named unfair treatment of undocumented immigration as a "very big problem."
In other words, immigration and how voters view it right now is among the most polarizing issues in the country. In addition, both CNN and Washington Post/ABC polls recently found more voters trust Democrats over Republicans to handle the issue, with 50 percent favoring Democrats to 38 percent who favor Republicans in the Post/ABC survey. If Trump’s looking to stoke the white-hot intensity of the GOP base, it might work, but it's certainly not winning Republicans many crossover votes, as independent voters also pick Democrats over Republicans to handle the issue, 48 percent to 32 percent.
Trump’s approach also entirely ignores what a drag on Republicans his family separation policy proved to be this summer. GOP strategists definitely felt the weight of the policy pulling down their candidates.
"This has been a disastrous summer for Republicans," National Journal wrote in July, noting that the inhumane policy was killing Republicans with suburban women. A September AP piece similarly noted:
“Trump’s turbulent summer appears to have put many moderates and independents out of reach for Republican candidates, according to GOP officials. One internal GOP poll obtained by The Associated Press showed Trump’s approval rating among independents in congressional battleground districts dropped 10 points between June and August."
Both of those reports were pre-Kavanaugh, but they speak specifically to the fallout over the administration's cruel policy, which along with Trump's jaw-dropping Putin summit were probably the two biggest political headlines of the summer.
So the idea that implementing some sort of Family Separation 2.0 will lift Republicans to victory is a gamble to be sure. But that is exactly what Trump’s itching to do.
Make no mistake, it's a sign of extreme desperation. After Democrats won the messaging war on the GOP's tax giveaway to the rich, it's simply too toxic to run on. And now that the GOP's supposed Kavanaugh "bump" is fading, Republicans are left with nothing to sell but racism and sexism. As Cook Political's Amy Walter noted, the only thing GOP candidates have spent more money on than anti-immigrant ads (47,001) are ads attacking Nancy Pelosi (61,741). Nonetheless, Walter concluded that Trump was still a much bigger drag on the GOP than Pelosi was on Democrats.
"Ultimately, fear of the future unknown is tougher to sell than fear of the present. Which makes the Pelosi-fear-factor ads a tough sell. "
A similar comparison could be made between trying to sell the electorate on the fear of a migration of desperate refugees over the fear of losing one's health care and suffering financial devastation. That is the choice many voters will face as Trump ramps up what is certain to be an incredibly ugly finish to this election season, while Democrats continue to press their clear advantage on health care.