How Trump Lost His Natural Congressional Power Bloc

I was admittedly stunned when Donald Trump won the presidency on Election Day, but by November 17th I had recovered enough to begin making an effort to see into the future. I began by looking at how the House Freedom Caucus would behave and what kind of choices they would face.

Trump wants to immediately do away with the Defense sequester, which the American Enterprise Institute estimates will allow him to spend about $300 billion extra over the next four years. The Wall Street Journal thinks that Trump’s proposed tax cuts will result in “$6 trillion in lost revenue over the next decade.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget looked at Trump’s proposals in the Spring and came up with this handy chart:

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Now, you might wonder how you can increase the debt by 12 trillion in ten years without raising the borrowing limit of the U.S. government. Sure, you can sprinkle some magic fairy dust around that will assume economic growth will exceed 10% annually, but that seems rather extreme even for committed supply-siders. Will the Freedom Caucus laugh in Trump’s face, as Paul Ryan did in September, when asked to pass his $550 billion unpaid-for infrastructure bill?

You might think that these folks will simply adjust to their new situation and go along to get along. And many of them will do just that. But they won’t be able to avoid breaking pledges or casting votes to raise the debt ceiling every five minutes.

And, that, in a sense, is having their wings clipped.

As you can see, my starting point was trying to figure out how a group of lawmakers who had become habituated to voting against raising the debt ceiling could be convinced to blow up the deficit to anything approximating the degree to which Donald Trump was proposing.

As I explored this further, the outlines of my future analysis started to emerge:

Now, when it comes time to vote on huge budget-busting bills, it may be that the Democrats will be there ready to lend a hand. But they’ll have conditions, and those conditions will grow more demanding to the exact degree that the Freedom Caucus refuses to supply the votes themselves. In other words, the more intransigent they are on blowing up the debt and deficit, the more power the Democrats get to shape legislation.

Will they learn their lesson from this?

If they do, it will be something new because they continually forced Boehner into the arms of Pelosi over the last six years until it frustrated them so badly that they essentially forced Boehner’s resignation.

It’s a no win situation for the Freedom Caucus because Trump will go around them if he needs to. But they could still cannibalize their own leadership. At least, for now, they seem content with Paul Ryan as their speaker, but there could come a day that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon (an avowed enemy of Ryan) asks them to defenestrate him. Or they could decide to do it wholly on their own as a way to push back against the White House’s big spending and reliance on Democrats.

There isn’t really a coherent strategy for them going forward, though. They can demand a total root-and-branch repeal of Obamacare but that’s probably not going to be possible on the terms they desire. But mostly, they’ll find themselves being whipped to vote for things that aren’t even remotely paid for, which will require them to up the debt ceiling repeatedly.

And if they refuse, the Democrats can hold the administration hostage in a fair bit of turnabout.

I had not yet anticipated how Trump would proceed and was still thinking that he might truly “clip the wings” of the Freedom Caucus as Jennifer Rubin was reporting he would at the time. I did not yet know that he would sign off on a plan to use a dual budget reconciliation process to in an effort to both repeal Obamacare and enact tax reform with only fifty votes in the Senate. By pursuing a plan maximally offensive to Democrats at the outset we also inadvertently gave veto power to both the Freedom Caucus and the moderate wing of the GOP to veto anything they didn’t like. And since they can’t agree with each other, he put his entire agenda at risk. But, more than that, he pushed off dealing with some of his other budget-busting ideas, like increased defense spending and a big infrastructure bill.

So, things didn’t unfold the way I anticipated but the structural logic of the conundrum remained in place and actually came out worse for the president. Trump hasn’t even gotten around to whipping House conservatives to vote for things that aren’t even remotely paid for and yet he’s still going to have trouble getting them to raise the debt ceiling. He should have made them walk that plank after he forced them to sign off on his big spending.

More than this, though, the dual budget reconciliation plan compounded the problem where the Freedom Caucus’s refusal to sign off on Trump’s campaign promises meant that the congressional leadership would have to go in search of Democratic votes that would not be forthcoming without painful conditions. This was both because the plan alienated the Democrats and because it gave the Trump administration the false impression that they would never need Democratic support.

I actually gave Trump too much credit back in November. I thought he’d realize that the most fruitful way forward  would be to cut the Freedom Caucus out and seek the votes he needed for things like defense spending and infrastructure from the middle. But he let the Republicans hijack his presidency and convince him to make Obamacare repeal and huge deficit busting tax cuts his top priorities.

Maybe this was driven by the fact that his most ardent supporters came from the far right. But it missed the reality he would face as president, the fact that he didn’t run as an orthodox tea partying conservative Republican on infrastructure, health care and entitlements, and that his most crucial supporters were actually longtime Democrats in the Rust Belt who had supported Barack Obama.

His natural congressional power bloc was actually a bipartisan one that would jettison Republican orthodoxy in the interest of building lots of roads and bridges, increasing defense spending, protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, dealing with the opioid crisis, and (yes) taking a hardline on immigration.

He pushed that group aside and followed a plan laid out by McConnell and Ryan that would have been fitting for any Republican president, including Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Except Jeb and Marco would have been smart enough to realize that that kind of plan would never work.

Martin Longman

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