One of the many results from the Alabama special election that should concern the White House was that voters were evenly divided about President Donald Trump’s job performance.
Exit polls showed Trump was dead even, at 48% approval to 48% disapproval, in a state he won in 2016 by nearly 28%. While the exit polls were certainly affected by high Democratic turnout, and perhaps also by Republicans’ reluctance to answer, Trump should worry.
There is no immediate reason that Trump should be doing so badly in a solidly conservative state. He has delivered on many of his campaign promises and will probably sign a sweeping tax reform bill by Christmas. Conservatives are disappointed that Obamacare has not yet been repealed, and that the border wall has not yet been built, but that is largely Congress’s fault. The only remaining explanation is his personal temperament — the tweets and the rest.
To turn his low approval numbers around, in Alabama and elsewhere, Trump will likely need to “pivot” — that is, if he wants to be re-elected (and he may, some speculate, be satisfied with one term). The question is what that pivot will be, and when it will happen.
In the 2016 campaign, when Trump’s rhetoric was also a concern, he managed to discipline himself over the last several weeks. Trump could do that again, softening his rhetoric expand his appeal.
But it is also possible that Trump could shift on policy. After tax reform, he will have achieved most of what it is possible for him to do himself, or with the cooperation of Republicans alone.
Immigration may be the last issue on which he can exert his will — but Republicans are divided over that. It is clear Obamacare will not be removed (or fixed) without a bipartisan bill.
So the potential for a policy pivot is there. The question may not be if, but when.
If Trump does pivot, the danger, from a conservative point of view, is that he will do so before securing his most important campaign pledge, which is the border wall.
If Congress legalizes Obama’s unconstitutional Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) without the wall, and without an end to chain migration and other key safeguards, it is possible he will be stuck in the worst of both worlds: losing his base without earning new support.
Conversely, if Trump fulfills his promises on stopping illegal immigration, he will secure his political base and be in a far stronger position to deal on issues like health care.
The deadline for a DACA “fix” is in March. That gives conservatives time to push the administration to deliver on the border wall before the 2018 midterm elections hit full stride.
After that, Congress will lose its nerve, and the pressure for a “pivot” may be too strong for even Trump to ignore.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.