I think it’s fair to say that the fundamental problem the congressional Republicans had when they were in the majority during the Obama presidency is that too many of their members could not be convinced that they lacked the power to impose their will on a Democratic president. Time and again, they took decisions predicated on the fallacy that they could get Obama to back down and give them everything they wanted. Try as he might, Speaker John Boehner could not keep the government’s doors open or pay our debts on time without running to the Democrats for support. Eventually, the need to do this repeatedly cost him his job.
Speaker Paul Ryan now has a Republican president to work with, but he’s already discovered that he can no more rely on his caucus to pass legislation than Boehner could, and he can rely on Republican senators even less. The problem is roughly the same, basically a strong streak of ideological lunacy precludes the Republicans from acting with enough unity to form a de facto majority.
I have to agree with Matt Yglesias that Paul Ryan has created a shambles because his grand strategic legislative plan for this year was built on the faulty premise that he could get his caucus to move as a bloc and that he could depend on the Republican-led Senate to approve what his chamber produced. These assumptions failed their first contact with reality when his Obamacare repeal/replace bill failed to even come to a vote.
On the other hand, I think Yglesias is probably too forgiving of Donald Trump. Anyone who observed the congressional Republicans during the Obama years should have been able to anticipate that it was a bad bet to build a presidential strategy around forcing everything through Congress with nothing but Republican votes.
This would be true for a traditional Republican president like Jeb Bush or even Mike Pence, but in Donald Trump’s case it should have been especially obvious. He had success in the primaries, first and foremost, by trashing prominent Republicans and taking positions contrary to traditional orthodox conservatism. He promised the kind infrastructure spending that Republicans refused to authorize for Obama. His positions on trade were more familiar coming from the left. He basically ran against Paul Ryan’s granny-starving plans for entitlements, even ridiculing them. Where he fell solidly on the right, he was so far right (on race and immigration and Islam, for example) that he alienated moderate conservatives.
He really had no basis for thinking that he could get the Republicans in Congress to approve the things he had campaigned on doing without getting some Democratic help. The debt ceiling will need to be raised soon, and Trump has no obvious plan for attracting Democratic votes for that. He has no workable plan to get the Democrats to work with him on infrastructure or tax reform, either.
What’s strange is that he seems to have fallen into this all-Republican no-Democrat strategy immediately. I can tell this by the fact that the health bill Speaker Ryan produced bore no resemblance to what he campaigned on, yet he didn’t seem to have any problem with that. It seems that he believed Ryan when he told him it was the only kind of bill the Republicans could agree on, and so he signed off on it. That was a failure on two counts. The first failure was believing that Ryan could deliver any all-Republican bill at all. The second failure was going for a bill so unpopular that only 17% of the public could support it.
Trump took the wrong path from the outset, but he also burned all his bridges behind him, which is why he cannot backtrack or get a mulligan. In theory, if all he wants to do is simplify the tax code, he could get a bipartisan tax reform through Congress. If he was willing to do direct spending on infrastructure similar to what Obama did with his stimulus plan, he might be able to pass that with mostly Democratic votes. He could still fulfill some of his promises even if he had to rethink how they’d be constructed.
But he made himself so toxic to Democrats that they want nothing to do with him or his legislative agenda.
At the same time, he’s so dependent on Republicans in Congress to limit oversight of his nepotism, self-dealing, emoluments violations, and possible collusion with the Russians’ interference in the election that he can’t afford to have them further divided. He certainly can’t afford to have a significant portion of them turn against him.
As it is, he’s almost assured of getting a primary that would make Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy blush.
So, while Yglesias is correct when he places a lot of blame on Speaker Ryan, I think the larger problem is that Trump didn’t think through what kind of cross-partisan coalition he’d need to be successful, who he’d need to lead it, and what steps he’d need to take to make up with the Democrats for his behavior in the primaries and the general election.
It is now assuredly too late to pivot or make corrections. Whether he continues to listen to Steve Bannon or he comes more to rely on the so-called New York Democrats in his West Wing, there is no strategy that will get him back to the place that should have served as his starting line.
In other words, Paul Ryan could never be a useful Speaker for Donald Trump. The House Republicans were never going to allow him to be a different kind of swamp-draining Republican. The Democrats, while admittedly angry and hostile from the beginning, were an essential ingredient in any success he might have hoped to have. He needed to spend most of his early energy courting them, but he hired a neo-Nazi to advise him, stole a Supreme Court seat, and tried to implement a Muslim ban and Obamacare repeal instead.
As bad as this is, hopeless really, it’s going to get worse because Trump still needs to find a way to keep the government operating and our debts paid on time. He’ll still need to go through the motions of trying to enact his legislative agenda despite there being no possible way to succeed with it.
By the time the fiscal year ends in September, there will be a smoking husk where millions once saw some promise.