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Republican civil war entirely predictable

Tough year: President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Nine months into gaining full control of Washington, Republicans are not where they hoped they would be. Very far from it, actually. They have no major legislative accomplishments to tout. After this past week, they are tipping into a civil war. And early polls suggest voters would rather elect a generic Democrat than a generic Republican in the congressional elections next year.

All of this was entirely predictable — not that there was much Republican leaders could do about it. And yes, I’m referring to Donald Trump.

But Republicans’ fracturing was evident long before Trump rode down that escalator in Trump Tower 2½ years ago.

“I think we’re trying to figure out when Republicans are either going to hit rock bottom or make the party great again,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican House aide and GOP consultant. “And to me, Trump is a symptom of that as much as he is a current cause.”

Let’s run down three main reasons that the difficult week Republicans just had — and the not-so-great year they are still having — were entirely predictable.

1, Trump is Trump

After Trump got elected, congressional Republicans made a decision to forget the campaign.

The ninth Supreme Court seat, repealing Obamacare and passing the first tax Bill in decades took precedence over all the negatives that come with Trump, including the Access Hollywood tape, Trump’s unpredictability, his rhetoric towards the GOP in the campaign and his fundamental opposition to traditional Republican positions on issues such as trade policy.

But Trump would not let them forget. Day by day, he proved many Republicans’ worst fears about him. A shortlist:

• He is very defensive and prides himself on “counterpunching” — regardless of whether the criticism is coming from within his own party

• He demands loyalty without returning it and casts Republicans as the reason for his failures without apparent consideration of his own role

• He is an untrustworthy dealmaker who can flip positions at a moment’s notice

• He is not ideological and has little grasp of policy

Republicans hoped against all evidence that Trump would change his ways after the campaign and become more like them. Instead, over the past few weeks, we have heard some powerful Republicans proclaim they think Trump is a danger to American democracy.

Trump is Trump, and Republicans — voters and congressional leaders — knew exactly what they would be getting when he got elected: an erratic leader who thrives on chaos. “It’s hard to tell how serious he is,” Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton Administration official and economics and healthcare policy analyst with the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post last month. “He’s made his deficit of trust bigger and bigger.”

2, They are trying to pass major social and economic reform legislation by themselves

By “themselves”, I mean without incorporating Democrats, which limits the total number of votes they have to pass legislation.

Pushing through major legislation on party-line votes is also a political risk. One that is predictable.

In 2010, Democrats passed Obamacare without any Republican votes, and they paid the political price. In the election immediately after Democrats passed Obamacare, they lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives. They have yet to win back the majority.

Republicans are not heeding recent history’s warnings. In the summer, they tried to push through an unpopular Obamacare repeal without any Democrats’ votes. After a few Republican defections, it failed by one vote in the Senate. Now, Republicans are trying the same party-line strategy on a tax Bill.

3, The Republican Party is changing

This has been happening for a while. Senator Jeff Flake, the Republican from Arizona, retired this past week because he determined he could not win a GOP primary as a Trump critic. He also said he thought the “fever” that is Trumpism would eventually break — just not in time for the 2018 election. Don’t be so sure about that, says The Post’s Aaron Blake. Trump’s anti-establishment and pro-culture war vigour “have been in demand among the GOP base for the better part of the past decade.” See the Tea Party and all the controversial GOP Senate candidates that movement helped to elevate. The irony is that Senate Republicans thought they had tamped down on that section of their party. Then Trump happened. They had not lost a primary race in five years until the fall in Alabama, where pro-Trump forces sided against them.

Now, the Republican establishment is in a war against those same Trump forces for the soul of their party.

Some Republicans think nothing less than that their electoral future is on the line.

“I don’t think we know if it is Trump’s party yet,” said Steve Bell, a former GOP Senate aide who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Centre. “If it becomes defined by him, though, we will be a minority party for many years.”

Republicans’ troubles were relatively easy to see coming: the Tea Party. Brushing aside hard lessons learnt by Democrats on policymaking. Nominating Trump. For those reasons, if Republicans’ worst-case scenario happens, and they lose control of Washington, we can say that, too, was entirely predictable.

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman DC bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan