Commentary: Why Republicans should be thankful (mostly) this Thanksgiving

Their poll numbers are lousy. Their legislative record so far is even worse. When their president's approval rating hits 40 percent, it's a good day.

So, do Republicans have anything to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving? What will they celebrate as they feast on their turkey and cranberries?  Based on the headlines, not much. But some Republicans believe that there's more good news one year after Trump's administration than meets the eye.

"The big thing Republicans should be thankful for is that they have the White House," says Fred Barnes, longtime DC political reporter and co-founder of the Weekly Standard.  "And if it wasn't President Trump, it would be President Hillary Clinton.  Who knows who she'd have appointed to fill Antonin Scalia's seat? So that's the big one." It is big, particularly for the 56 percent of Trump voters who said in exit polls that the Supreme Court was "the most important factor" in their support for Trump.

This is why at Thanksgiving dinners in Republican homes, the phrase "Judge Neil Gorsuch" is likely to be heard as often as "pass the gravy." Democrats have begun mocking the Right for wearing out that Trump talking point, but conservative judicial activists are still smiling because, they say, Gorsuch was just the beginning.

"Meet These 5 Stellar Conservatives Trump Just Added to His Supreme Court List," is the headline from the conservative Heritage Foundation touting Mr. Trump's newest judicial picks. Meanwhile, the Republican the base loves to hate, Mitch McConnell, pushed through four of President Trump's circuit court nominees in one fell swoop earlier this month.

Such swift action on so many judgeships is "very rare," according to University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.  "It never happened in George W. Bush's presidency, and only happened once in Obama's…and Clinton's eight years."

Taxes and the economy

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says that despite the ongoing debate over the issue, "Republicans should be thankful for tax cuts: They united the party and give us something cheerful to talk about during any awkward Thanksgiving moments."

And with only 13 GOP defections in the House, Republicans believe taxes remain an issue that brings the party together.  More promising, the House agreed in advance to the Senate's parameters for a tax reform bill—essentially "uniting" with Senate Republicans in advance.  The Senate may yet leave the House GOP hanging again (like they did with health care), but for the moment, Republicans have reason to feel optimistic.

That optimism is enhanced by the overall economic picture. The last time Americans had a holiday season with a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, Bill Clinton was still president. Even better, Goldman Sachs is predicting that rate will fall to 3.5 percent by the end of 2019—a number not seen since Christmas 1969.

As President Trump pointed out on his Asia trip: "Economic growth has been over 3 percent the last two quarters and is going higher. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 17 years. The stock market has gained trillions of dollars in value since my election and has reached record highs."

The Democrats

Schadenfreude may run counter to the spirit of Thanksgiving, but expect Republicans to be ladling it out to their Democratic family and friends when the conversation turns to politics.  Yes, Mr. Trump and Republicans are struggling, but a new poll released by CNN finds the Democratic Party polling at its lowest level in a quarter century.

Meanwhile, longtime Democrat Donna Brazile's new book about intrigue inside the party has divided the Bernie and Hillary factions which, in turn, has encouraged Hillary Clinton to spend more time in the media.  And for that, Trump and his Republican allies should be really thankful.

Clinton's approval ratings in 2017 have consistently been below President Trump's. Worse for Democrats, Hillary has gotten involved in the ongoing issue of sexual harassment—an irony not lost on talk-radio conservatives who've been mocking Bill Clinton's bad behavior (and Hillary's defense of her husband) for decades.

In fact, the politics of personal behavior have completely shifted since the Judge Roy Moore story broke in Alabama.

Judge Roy Moore's sordid tale makes him a difficult candidate for Republicans to defend. And many aren't even trying: National polls show that only about one in four Republicans want him to stay in the race. But thanks to a combination of the revival of old Clinton stories and new revelations about prominent liberals like Sen. Al Franken, Rep. John Conyers, CBS News' Charlie Rose and others, the Roy Moore issue has become muddied.

None of this rescues Republicans from their current challenges. They're still down by 10 points or more in the "generic ballot" (would you prefer to have a Republican or Democrat representing you) and Donald Trump has the worst one-year-in polling of any modern president.

But Republicans can still find plenty of reasons to give thanks in 2017.  And given how badly things are shaping up for the 2018 midterms, they might as well seize the opportunity now.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.