Trump is Trapped Between Democrats and Republicans Who Disagree With Him

Let me explain why National Review‘s editor in chief Rich Lowry has identified the fatal flaw in Trump’s administration but has nothing legitimate to offer as a solution. Here’s what Lowry gets right. He sees that the Republicans’ two main legislative priorities right now, Obamacare repeal/replace and tax reform, are things that candidate Trump promised but not things that really drove his victory. After all, these are both things that would have been on the priority list for a President Rubio or Cruz.

Lowry also understands the skewed dynamic that he describes here:

This is a product of how the Republican sweep of 2016 was won on separate tracks. Trump tore up many Republican orthodoxies and went out and found a different way to unlock the electoral map, winning in the industrial Midwest. Congressional Republicans more or less stuck with the usual script, kept Trump at arm’s length, and held their majorities in the House and the Senate.

As a result, there is no significant Trumpist wing in Congress. The faction most favorable to him, the House Freedom Caucus, is made up of ideological conservatives whose philosophy is at odds with Trump’s economic populism, even if they are drawn to his anti-establishmentarianism.

Insofar as Trump has fellow-travelers within the party, they’re the ones who are least inclined to support more government spending or projects. As Lowry notes, Trump’s campaign message was so high on signaling (anti-Mexico border wall, anti-China trade deals) and so low on substance that when he arrived in the White House, “there was no off-the-shelf Trump legislation that Congress could begin on immediately.”

And this led to the Trump team’s fatal mistake. They saw themselves as besieged by the political establishment and legitimized by the silent far-right plurality that elected them. Their inclination was to keep going back to the far right for support and message amplification, but that meant that they were cutting off all avenues of cooperation with the Democrats. And, without any realistic prospect of moving bipartisan legislation, that left the administration completely dependent on the very congressional Republican establishment Trump had basically defanged and discredited in the primaries.

Lowry suggests that the Trump administration’s decision to rely on Congressional Republicans to push their agenda was a “natural reflex” arising out of the fact that they didn’t have their own bills ready, but I think that’s not quite right:

The natural reflex, then, was to defer to the Republican leadership in Congress. Trump could have come roaring out of the gate with one of his distinctive proposals, the $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and wooed Democrats to support it and dared Republicans to oppose it. Instead, infrastructure has been put off to the second year, the polite way of saying it may not happen at all.

It’s probably more accurate to say that the Trump administration was so interested in pursuing their ideological plan through radically unacceptable administrative appointments that they didn’t give much thought to the legislative repercussions of cutting off the possibility of Democratic cooperation in Congress. They thereby stumbled into a situation where their only option was to pass the ball to Ryan and McConnell and tell them to do what they can on their own.

One way of putting this is that, yes, it was a mistake not to make infrastructure and jobs his top priority, and to make sure that he had Democratic buy-in for his bill, but that effort would still have failed because of other decisions that were made, like appointing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and coming out of the box with an unconstitutional Muslim ban.

Trump wasn’t elected to be the most far right Republican in the country. He was elected, in large part, because he wasn’t a Republican. He wasn’t anything like George or Jeb Bush. He wasn’t like John Boehner and Eric Cantor. That was a huge part of his appeal. And it wasn’t just that he was more pugnacious. It was that he was different when it came to trade and infrastructure and entitlements and health care. He picked off a lot of traditional Democrats because of this, but he didn’t follow up with that advantage once he started to form his cabinet and craft his legislative priorities.

And I think this is why Lowry doesn’t have a solution for Trump’s conundrum. Because, for Lowry, the main thing is that Trump needs to find a way to get this health care bill passed or everything is going to go to shit for him.

Even more than most politicians, Trump has no interest in owning failure. The explanation of the president and his supporters won’t be that he backed a flawed strategy and bill in the House and paid the price. It will be that he was stabbed in the back. He went along with a GOP establishment politics that doesn’t understand or care about Trump voters, and he can never make that mistake again…

…This would mean Trump would be a president not without a party necessarily, but without a Congress. It would make major legislative accomplishments impossible…

Lowry does acknowledge that the current health care bill has its problems but, just like the rest of the GOP establishment, he doesn’t seem to understand or care about Trump voters.

It is better for everyone that Obamacare repeal-and-replace succeed. Ryan should amend his bill to, among other things, get the coverage numbers up and make it a sturdier vessel for the turbulence ahead. The alternative is a defeat that may precipitate a nasty, perhaps enduring, split in a party desperate to paper over its divisions.

The political problems with the Republicans’ health care bill can’t be solved by magically amending it to get the coverage numbers up. For Trump’s strongest congressional supporters, the coverage numbers are still too high and the bill represents an ideological defeat by permanently enshrining the principle that the federal government should subsidize health insurance for those who can’t afford it. Trump can take their side and lose in the House or he can take Ryan’s side and lose in the Senate. His problem is that he needs the Democrats and he’s pushed them so far away that he will never get them back.

Trump could have been true to his word of shaking things up in Washington if he had gone in there and had no regard for party and just put together coalitions to do stuff he wanted done. He could have told Schumer to come up with an infrastructure plan and then whipped just enough Republicans to get it passed. He could have gone after Dems to support his vision for trade and tax reform.

Instead, he and his team waddled into the threshing blades by choosing a strategy where he would be completely dependent on a Republican Party that he had discredited and ought to have been working around rather than with.

There really is no solution for Trump. He has, as they say, screwed the pooch. He still needs Democrats to achieve his agenda, but they won’t be there for him. The Republican congress can’t pass much by themselves, and what they can pass isn’t what Trump’s voters want or expect.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.