Maybe Trump Needs a Democratic Congress

Dan McLaughlin of the National Review is mostly grasping at straws when he argues that congressional Republicans are doing more to moderate President Trump’s behavior than is generally understood.

One of the things that is sometimes said as an argument for electing Democrats to office is that Republicans have done nothing to check or restrain President Trump. If you know how Washington works and you’ve watched events there closely, though, this isn’t really true. Just because something doesn’t happen in a public, theatrical way does not mean it never happened.

I mean, obviously, Trump gets feedback from the leadership in Congress and there are certain members who have a degree of influence with him. And it’s true that most Republican politicians can probably kiss their influence goodbye, no matter limited it may be to begin with, if they’re too loud in public in their criticisms.

The problem for this argument is that no one is suggesting that Republicans never talk Trump out of a bad idea. When people say that the GOP has done “nothing” to check or restrain him, they’re generally talking about a long list of things that come under the umbrella of government oversight. A very partial list includes going along with his phony voter fraud claims (and short-lived investigative committee), his problems with security clearances and proper vetting, his violations of the Emoluments Clause to the Constitution and other examples of self-dealing and numerous scandals involving cabinet secretaries’ travel and spending.

Beyond that, the Russia question has not been aggressively or thoroughly explored, which has consequences for actual policy. Congress has not reined in Trump’s bizarre behavior on trade and tariffs, which generally runs counter to conservative ideology. They were not on top of Trump’s immigration policies, leading to what National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry says is a “rout” and “a debacle” that may now “harm [the administration’s] cause in the larger war over immigration policy and enforcement.”

These are just the areas where there should have been a bipartisan interest in better oversight of the White House, but if we’re talking about what the electorate at large expects, I think the list of concerning things Congress is neglecting to investigate is much larger.  Just on the issue of how science is treated by this administration, I think the voters should want a change in control of Congress.

So, I reject the thrust of McLaughlin’s argument, which is that there is no need to give the Democrats control of Congress in order to get meaningful checks and restraints on Trump. But he makes a couple of compelling observations at the conclusion of his piece.

The downside of the emphasis on working behind the scenes and tiptoeing around Trump’s explosive ego, of course, is that Republicans who want to rein in Trump’s behavior have to accept the tradeoff of not being able to show or tell the voters that they have done so. That leaves their Democratic opponents free to claim that they are all secret Trumpists or wallflowers. Which will not play well in many competitive states and districts this fall.

The other irony in this whole picture is that Trump thrives on conflict, sometimes for its own sake. If Democrats take control of Congress in November, there will be far less incentive for Trump to moderate his behavior to keep his alliance with Congressional Republicans in line, and far more temptation for him to go Full Trump, investigations and shutdowns notwithstanding. Voters who think Trump is unchecked now may actually be in for an unpleasant surprise when Paul Ryan is gone from the scene.

Trump not only thrives on conflict, he actually benefits from it. The most compelling reason you could make against the Democrats taking over Congress next January is that it would give Trump the enemy he needs to do politics in a way that actually works for him. It’s assumed that a Congress willing to exercise its investigative and subpoena powers, to put the Trump administration in the glare of well-publicized oversight hearings and to aggressively pursue whatever Bob Mueller eventually produces, will sink Trump’s reelection chances for good, if not result in his removal from office. And I strongly suspect that this is true.

But, I cannot discount that Trump could grow stronger in a partisan battle with Congress because the people generally hate Congress more than any other organization in America, and Trump has a way of getting the better of his critics when they try to stand toe-to-toe with him. Insofar as he’d have to moderate to keep the government open, that could benefit him, too.

If McLaughlin wants to make a more compelling argument for continued Republican control of Congress, he should say that a Democratic Congress will make Trump’s reelection more likely.

The right isn’t going to take my advice, though, because they think the best, and perhaps only, way to motivate the Republican base to get out and vote is to suggest the opposite. They’ll say that the Republicans need to vote to prevent Trump from being impeached, convicted and removed from office.

We’ll see how things work out, but it’s possible that the worst thing for Trump would be to have to spend two more years flailing around with a Republican Congress that won’t hold him in check and cannot get anything done.

Martin Longman

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