GOP stuck on defense

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On the roster: GOP stuck on defense - What they’re saying: A devil of a race down in Georgia - Time Out: The story of love - Trump keeps Obama’s Iran nuke deal but promises review - Tragedy has never smelled so delicious

Why are Republican office holders saying unkind things about President Trump?

Either because they think they can or they think they must.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, facing a bushel of angry voters at her town hall this week, described a president “that has a number of flaws.” The Iowa freshman went on to say that she does “support a majority of the policies versus the actual person.”

Ernst even elaborated saying that she wished the president would stop his expensive weekend trips to his Florida country club, something she says bothers her and “other members of our caucus.”

Down in Oklahoma her colleague James Lankford took the president to task on his refusal to release his tax returns, saying that Trump should “keep his promise.”

It’s starting to feel a little bit like the Republican primaries when Trump kept winning elections but members of his party kept moving away from him. Both Lankford and Ernst made their comments in the context of back-to-back special election wins in red districts where Democrats had hoped to swipe seats from the GOP.

So what gives?

In the wake of Trump’s improbable November victory, Republicans came to live in a world where almost anything was possible. Almost no office holders or senior party leaders thought Trump was likely to win (of course, neither did Trump), so when he did they suspended their own judgment for a time.

Could the president really quarterback the repeal and replacement of ObamaCare, negotiate an overhaul of the tax code and push a trillion-dollar infrastructure stimulus spending plan? It was reasonable for people who would have otherwise felt certain that his agenda was too bold to question their own judgments.

But now, reality is setting in. It looks unlikely that there will be any kind of comprehensive reform to the way Americans obtain health insurance, tax reform is falling off the table and infrastructure sounds increasingly like it will rely on fuzzy math and future promises.

Also, Trump has repeatedly threatened to walk away from the conservative voters who make up the core of the GOP and cut deals with Democrats to advance his agenda. Trump’s leftward moves, whether they are feints or not, probably suggest to Republican members of Congress that there will be hard times to come with the president of their own party.

The concerns about the future have certainly trickled down to Republican voters. While Democrats have failed in both of their efforts to flip traditionally bright-red House districts, underlying numbers suggest Republican enthusiasm is at low ebb.

Trump’s most loyal supporters, the same core group that delivered early support and early victories for Trump is no doubt still reliably backing the president. But among the ideological conservatives and suburban moderates who so long shied away, their tenuous connections based on overlapping policy objectives are more easily broken.

These special elections and these public criticisms of the president are part of the same problem for the administration as it struggles to find the right footing to make its first year a successful one.

Old divisions are reemerging among Republicans and setbacks in Washington, particularly the face plant on health insurance, are deepening doubts.

It’s fine for Republicans to feel relief at winning these special elections. They should. It’s also fine to reject doomsayers who declare Trump a lame duck already. That’s hogwash.

But they must not do those things at the cost of becoming complacent. The GOP and its president are unpopular right now and early assumptions widely held across the political spectrum that Trump and his party would succeed in shaking up Washington and improving the economy are fading into deeper doubts.

The table is already set for Congress when it returns on Monday, and the offerings are unappetizing. Democrats see a chance to force a potential partial government shut down as the clock runs out on a stopgap spending bill at the end of next week. And substantial disagreements remain about how to prevent massive dislocations under ObamaCare.

Neither of those topics does much to please voters, neither in the Republican base nor in the broader electorate.

But, if these fights give way to some sort of substantive policy discussion with chances for advancement there’s no reason to think that the GOP can still recapture the narrative of change and growth.

Remember, Bill Clinton, who presided over the most recent boom economy and left office beloved by many, had a first year that rode about as smooth as two flat tires on gravel.

Dem hype machine backfires -
National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reflects how the Democratic Party’s efforts were close, but that they’ll have to do more to achieve true victory: “Democratic activists spent the last month pour­ing their time, energy, and passion be­hind a 30-year-old film­maker, Jon Ossoff, who represented the hopes and dreams of the anti-Trump Left. They turned the low-key former Hill staffer into a political celebrity, helped him raise re­cord sums of money for a House race, and even baited President Trump into unleashing a tweet storm on the off year congressional contest. The re­turn on their in­vest­ment: a can­did­ate who turned in a sol­id, un­spec­tac­u­lar per­form­ance that places him in a run­off against former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del on June 20. Os­soff fin­ished sev­er­al points shy of the 50 per­cent needed to avoid a run­off. Han­del nearly doubled the sup­port of her closest Re­pub­lic­an rival, a re­spect­able show­ing for the GOP polit­ic­al vet­er­an.”

But Republicans still have reason to worry – RCP’s Sean Trende explains the touch of gray in the GOP’s silver lining: “Moral victories are a myth, but they can tell us things about other, similarly situated contests. It’s the reason the NCAA selection committee takes strength of schedule into account when seeding postseason tournaments. All other things being equal, Republicans weren’t neutral on the outcome here.  They would have preferred that Ossoff wind up in the low 40s or even the 30s, instead of taking them to the wire. This district is, at its core, a Republican one, which a Republican should have won easily.  As I put it Tuesday, there was a continuum of concern among Republicans from hardly any at all if Ossoff won 40 percent of the vote to panic if he won the district outright, with genuine concern starting in at around 45 percent.  I still think that’s correct, and this outcome was closer to panic than ‘meh.’”

Runoff looks like a tossup - He may not pay his sports gambling debts, but FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten smartly posits that the runoff will likely be quite competitive: “Polls conducted before Tuesday suggested that Handel and Ossoff were running in a near tie in a potential runoff. In an average of five polls conducted since mid-March, Ossoff held a scant 0.4-point lead over Handel. A formula created by my colleague Nate Silver based off previous runoff elections also points to a tight runoff. Combining the lean of Georgia 6 on the presidential level over the last two elections (9.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation), Ossoff’s margin over Handel (28 points) and the aggregate margin of the Republican candidates over the Democratic candidates (2 points), Handel is favored in the runoff by less than a point. With the relatively wide margin of error on this calculation, this is the equivalent of a tossup.”

[WashEx’s David Drucker credits the Republican victory to funds provided by Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC]
“Every unbiased observer may infer, without danger of mistake, and at the same time without meaning to reflect on either party, or any individuals of either party, that, unfortunately, PASSION, not REASON, must have presided over their decisions.” – Alexander Hamilton or James MadisonFederalist No. 50

The Atlantic: “Dos Equis’s most Interesting Man in the World ran a marathon just because it was on his way, is both left- and right-handed, and is fluent in all the world’s languages, including three that he alone speaks. … According to a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the appeal of average-looking Interesting Men, both real and fictional, might be all in their interestingness. First, the participants were shown images…Each image was paired with a short story based on the painting The Lovers by René Magritte. …The participants were told the people in the photos wrote the stories, and then asked to judge how attractive they were. Though the subjects always thought the physically more handsome men were more attractive, the more creative men seemed more attractive than the uncreative ones. But creativity did nothing to enhance the women’s attractiveness in the subjects’ eyes. … Across the study’s three trials, just one showed any attractiveness benefit of creativity in women.”

Flag on the play? - Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions.

Reuters: “The Trump administration said on Tuesday it was launching an inter-agency review of whether the lifting of sanctions against Iran was in the United States' national security interests, while acknowledging that Tehran was complying with a deal to rein in its nuclear program. In a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the top Republican in Congress, on Tuesday U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Iran remained compliant with the 2015 deal, but said there were concerns about its role as a state sponsor of terrorism. … During his presidential campaign, Trump called the agreement ‘the worst deal ever negotiated,’ raising questions over whether he would rip up the agreement once he took office. The historic deal between Iran and six major powers restricts Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international oil and financial sanctions against the Islamic Republic Iran denies ever having considered developing atomic weapons although nuclear experts have warned that any U.S. violation of the nuclear deal would allow Iran also to pull back from its commitments to curb nuclear development.”

Trump carrier threat seems to have been a bluff - NYT: “‘We’re sending an armada,’ Mr. Trump said to Fox News last Tuesday afternoon. The problem was that the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the three other warships in its strike force were that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula. … Officials [from the Defense Department] described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea. By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Mr. Trump was considering a pre-emptive military strike.”

Lots of options for dealing with Norks… all of them bad -
Bloomberg: “Three weeks before becoming president, Donald Trump weighed in on the threat of North Korea developing a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the U.S.: ‘It won’t happen,’ he vowed on Twitter. Now planners are contemplating what a U.S. strike to prevent that development might look like, and the options are grim. Analysts estimate North Korea may now possess between 10 and 25 nuclear weapons, with launch vehicles, air force jets, troops and artillery scattered across the country, hidden in caves and massed along the border with South Korea. That’s on top of what the U.S. estimates to be one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program and an active cyberwarfare capability. And with Seoul and its 10 million residents just 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of the border -- well within North Korea’s artillery range -- any eruption of hostilities could have devastating human and economic costs.”

Report: Nunes claims on surveillance don’t wash -
 Ryan Lizza breaks some news on the ongoing Russia probe. The New Yorker: “I spoke to two intelligence sources, one who read the entire binder of intercepts and one who was briefed on their contents. ‘There’s absolutely nothing there,’ one source said. The Trump names remain masked in the documents, and [former National Security Adviser Susan Rice] would not have been able to know in all cases that she was asking the N.S.A. to unmask the names of Trump officials. … The intelligence source told me that he knows, ‘from talking to people in the intelligence community,’ that ‘the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ … And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.’ (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)”

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz not seeking re-election- AP

What a worst case scenario for ObamaCare exchanges looks like NYT

West Wing leak says top Trump economic advisor wants to end state, local tax deductions Axios

Senate Dem group launches ads to defend Sen. Claire McCaskill - Politico

Andrew Sullivan marvels at Democrats’ capacity to pity Hillary Clinton - New York Magazine

Talk about royalty! Gov. Andrew Cuomo D., N.Y. got $245 per book The Buffalo News

“It’s nice to be recognized. But on the other hand, if it gets to be tedious, we might start to complain.” – Nick Strakhov, a town official from Bedminster, N.J., talking to Politico about news that as the season ends for President Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla, Trump is expected to move his weekend golf outings to his club in the small New Jersey community.

“I would like your take on the Washington Post story regarding the American National Election Study.  Seems there some big leaps of logic in applying odd questions to modeling a profile of a Trump voter. Maybe something to discuss in a future report?  Or perhaps during a podcast the highly informative and entertaining ‘I’ll Tell You What?’  My favorite podcast.  It is like sitting down and having a conversation with friends.  I look forward to it every week.” – Brigid SheaAustralia 

[Ed. note: The article you’re referring to is an analysis written by a political science professor at Ohio State University extrapolating responses to psychological profile questions to reach a conclusion about the motivations of voters. The first quibble one might have is that he set the universe of options as either authoritarian motivations or racist motivations. His highly subjective interpretation stemmed from a presumption that it had to be one or the other. You can take or leave his findings, but I would say that the study itself is a hugely valuable thing for demographers and political scientists. If you want to do your own spelunking, you can look at the study itself here, but rest assured that this mother of all exit polls has fascinating things to say about what drives voters. Thank you also for your support of the podcast. If we can make American politics sound sensible and interesting to someone so far away, then we must be doing something right.]

“I don't live in the 6th District but I would really like to know how John Ossoff became the leading Democrat candidate. Who picked him? Pelosi? I had never heard his name before this election yet he was the recipient of most or all of the outside money coming in.” – Bruce Cutts, Snellville, Ga.

[Ed. note: Mr. Cutts, I’m sorry to say that because Snellville is in the Atlanta media market you’re in for more campaign carbon bombing between now and June. As for how Ossoff managed to become the Democratic frontrunner, I would suggest that it was his early success that got him the money, not the other way around. It’s true that he’s the kind of candidate that national Democrats would cotton to, being young, being telegenic and a good talker. But give credit where it is due. Ossoff worked his keister off on a race that national Democrats were paying no attention to and made them notice.]

“You mentioned [in a response From The Bleachers on Monday] that you think we should go back to having US Senators elected by State Legislatures, as they were until the 17th Amendment was adopted in 1913.  I am intrigued by the ‘top 2 primary’ system that California and some other states have started using for US Senate, House, and other statewide races.  All candidates appear on one primary ballot, and only the 2 candidates who receive the most votes move on the general election. … Greater competition is better than term limits, because it allows for an incumbent to stay in office as long as the voters believe there is no better person for the job.  The parties don’t like the idea because they risk not having a candidate on the general election ballot, but that’s another benefit in my opinion.  What are your thoughts?” – Sandy Harlow, Timonium, Md.

[Ed. note: There is a lot to like in the open primary concept, namely the way in which it defeats the sometimes regressive nature of partisan primaries. It’s true that in most states, primaries pull candidates to the far right or the far left, leaving them struggling to regain middle ground in the general election. But there is some virtue in that, though. Parties act as sorting devices that require individuals to meet certain thresholds before taking office. There’s something to be said for forcing candidates to raise money, court party leaders and activists on a hyper-local level and jump through other hoops to advance. The danger with open primaries is that money and name recognition alone would allow for easy victories. Also, parties would like picking and choosing candidates anyway. There would be an unofficial primary before the primary in which partisans try to line up behind one candidate or another, as Democrats just did in Georgia’s special election. I want to watch California’s system in action for some time before I render any kind of judgment on its merits.]

“It’s basketball playoff season…I’d like to see George wearing a Washington Wizards uniform dunking over Pelosi wearing Sacramento Kings jersey…Keep up the good work.” – Jim Adams, Portland, Ore.

[Ed. note: Thanks very much, Mr. Adams! I admit that I have toyed with the idea of a “Seventh Inning Stretch,” especially when we are publishing, ahem, later than we’d like. But as for the professional basketball playoffs, I can’t go there with you. Maybe it’s because I grew up in places with no connection to pro hoops, but it’s hard for me to get engaged on the professional game. When college basketball, or more specifically the West Virginia University Mountaineers, wrap up for the season I’m ready to put away hoops for the year to devote my undivided attention to the great American game, baseball.]

Share your color commentary: Email us at 
HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM and please make sure to include your name and hometown.

WITI: “West Allis [Wisc.] officials responded to a fire involving a semi-trailer near National and Cleveland Avenues on Tuesday... Authorities said the semi was filled with cheese – 20,000 pounds of it! Apparently, the driver got a call that the truck was on fire, so he pulled over and tried putting it out himself, but he couldn’t. Fire officials said it was a tough fire to fight because the cheese itself was on fire inside the trailer. ‘Because the contents of the trailer were packed so tightly and it was on fire inside, we decided to bring in a front-end loader to open it up so we could get water in and make sure the fire was completely extinguished,’ Kurt Zellmann, West Allis assistant fire chief said. Fire officials said the semi’s driver did the right thing by finding a big, open parking lot away from any buildings.”

“It doesn't matter whether you promised to abolish ObamaCare or not. When the president is sworn in on the oath of office, he owns the economy and he owns the health care system no matter what. So whether you act or you don’t, you’re going to get the blame. There is no way to blame the Democrats.”– Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.