Jonathan Chait thinks the Republicans will come to regret that Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected president. His reasoning is solid. If elected, Clinton would have found her legislative agenda mostly blocked by a Republican Congress, and there’s a decent chance that the left would have disintegrated in frustration, leading to more big midterm gains for the GOP and possibly an easy victory in the 2020 presidential race.
Michael Anton’s now-iconic essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” made the case for Trump as a desperation gamble. (Hence the metaphor to a hijacked airline flight whose passengers had to choose a desperate and probably doomed fight over certain death.) Anton, now a staffer in Trump’s administration, saw another four years of Democratic presidencies as the end of white America and conservative America. Most Republicans — even those, like Anton, deeply suspicious of Trump — ultimately agreed. Almost the entire GOP decided its hatred or fear of Clinton overrode their misgivings about their own nominee, and, with varying levels of enthusiasm, supported Trump. They brought disaster upon their country, but as a small measure of compensatory justice, they have also brought it upon their party. By the time Trump has departed the Oval Office, they will look longingly at a staid, boxed-in Clinton presidency as a road not taken.
In truth, however, almost no Washington Republicans voted for Trump in the primaries. The elite conservative intelligentsia never saw Trump as fit for office, nor did they see him as an ideologically acceptable conservative. They had reconciled themselves to a Clinton presidency and were gearing up to win the battle over the autopsy of Trump’s campaign. Most of them did not want Trump to win and we’re relieved that the polls indicated that he had no chance to win. When I wrote yesterday that “our country has been atomic-wedgied on a flagpole” by the Russians, I intentionally referred not just to the left or the Democrats. Trump spent his whole primary campaign giving wedgies to the Republican establishment. Jeb was “low energy” and “Little Rubio” was a lightweight, John McCain was no war hero and, by the way, here’s Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone number. Give it a call.
If President Trump is the most successful college prank ever pulled off, both parties are the victims.
After the Access Hollywood tape came out in early October, the Speaker of the House held a phone conference with members of his caucus and said outright that he wasn’t lifting a finger to help Trump and didn’t even contemplate that he might still win.
Here’s what Paul Ryan said on that call:
“[Trump’s Access Hollywood] comments are not anywhere in keeping with our party’s principles and values,” Ryan said. “There are basically two things that I want to make really clear, as for myself as your Speaker. I am not going to defend Donald Trump—not now, not in the future. As you probably heard, I disinvited him from my first congressional district GOP event this weekend—a thing I do every year. And I’m not going to be campaigning with him over the next 30 days.”
“Look, you guys know I have real concerns with our nominee,” Ryan continued. “I hope you appreciate that I’m doing what I think is best for you, the members, not what’s best for me. So, I want to do what’s best for our members, and I think this is the right thing to do. I’m going to focus my time on campaigning for House Republicans. I talked to a bunch of you over the last 72 hours and here is basically my takeaway. To everyone on this call, this is going to be a turbulent month. Many of you on this call are facing tough reelections. Some of you are not. But with respect to Donald Trump, I would encourage you to do what you think is best and do what you feel you need to do. Personally, you need to decide what’s best for you. And you all know what’s best for you where you are.”
The last thing that Paul Ryan was thinking at that moment is that he might have the opportunity to put his repeal and replace Obamacare bill on President Trump’s desk. Frankly, he didn’t even want that outcome, and he was hardly alone.
But he was wasn’t thinking three steps ahead, like Chait is asking us to do. He wasn’t calculating that the GOP would be better off in the end with a President Clinton. He considered a Clinton win a disaster, too. It’s just that, given the choice, it was obvious that Trump wasn’t an option because he wasn’t in any way “in keeping with our party’s principles and values.”
But Chait is correct that rank-and-file Republican voters largely stayed with Trump, meaning that they “brought disaster upon their country.” This led Trump to make a fatal miscalculation. He thought he won with a partisan vote so he should be able to govern with an exclusively partisan coalition. That was incorrect because his victory was a victory over both parties, and the Washington Establishment didn’t accept him irrespective of which party they represented.
Trump needed a bipartisan coalition from the moment he saw the surprising Electoral College results, and he had a major repair job to do if he was going to find any space on the left after insulting every ethnic and minority group in the country, running an explicitly racist campaign, and being exposed as a sexual predator. That was the moment when he needed to begin an aggressive pivot in both his style and rhetoric and in his legislative proposals. He was going to need to break some campaign promises, it’s true, but he had no choice because the Democrats weren’t going to associate with a man who was still calling for a Muslim Ban and for a mass deportation force and border wall.
Chait echoed a point I made recently when he wrote that this kind of pivot and bipartisanship “would cost [Trump] the Republican lockstep support he needs to quash investigations into his corruption and campaign ties to Russia.” I think this is a key point, which is why I characterized Trump’s presidency as doomed from the outset. But it wasn’t all that clear on Election Day that his liabilities on Russia would be so crippling. If it had been, he wouldn’t have overridden his own transition staff and made Michael Flynn his National Security Adviser. If he had understood his situation correctly, he wouldn’t have persisted in doubting the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the election on his behalf, and he wouldn’t have been allowing his staff to meet with the Russian ambassador in Trump Tower or set up a surreptitious meeting with a Putin representative in the Seychelles.
At least at the outset, he had some alternatives. He might have tried to gain support for a legislative agenda that, while distinct from his campaign promises, was consistent with it in spirit. There were coalitions of Democrats who might have helped him figure out an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership or ways to renegotiate NAFTA. He could have had support for an infrastructure bill that looked a lot like what President Obama had called for for years. Repeal and replace could have been softened into something less vindictive and more constructive. He could have consulted the Democrats on appointments to key administrative and cabinet positions.
In the end, this would have probably broken the House of Representatives in ways I have been advocating that it break ever since John Boehner discovered that he had to rely on Democratic votes to pass appropriations bills, pay the government’s debts, and keep the government’s doors open. Just as with Boehner, Trump’s true House majority would always have to be bipartisan if it were to be a majority at all. Why not elect a speaker who was reflective of that governing majority? Paul Ryan was disloyal anyway, so there was no need to prefer him to stay on.
But Trump decided that he would and could govern with no Democratic votes, and even went to great lengths to assure that he’d have no other option.
Now, as the behavior of House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes so clearly demonstrates, Trump needs the current House alignments to stay in place. If he were to force Ryan out and orchestrate a bipartisan leadership in the House, he’d immediately find himself besieged by subpoenas and possibly (soon after) articles of impeachment.
He’s not yet 100 days into his presidency, and he’s already arrived at this place. And he arrived at it in large part because he didn’t even try to avoid this fate.
In retrospect, the first thing he should have done after winning the election is call John Boehner and tell him he wanted to golf. Then Boehner could have explained to him that he’d never be able to corral the House Republicans to enact his agenda and that he’d need to think creatively about what he wanted to do and about how to get a majority that would make it possible.