We don't need a president to tell us what direction to go; we know what direction we want to go. . . . The Republicans in the House have passed 24-plus bills that create jobs and opportunity and strip out regulations. We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. . . . [We just need to] pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become the president of the United States . . . [and] to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.
It's important to understand the context in which Norquist was speaking. The front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who was facing criticism at the time from hard-liners on the right for his previous departures from conservative ideological purity. Norquist was, in effect, giving a campaign speech on Romney's behalf, telling conservative activists that Romney's personal views or past record in office shouldn't trouble them because Paul Ryan and other congressional conservatives would be in charge of policy under a Romney presidency, and Romney would faithfully go along with their sweeping plans to reshape the federal budget and welfare state. (This was before Romney received the Republican presidential nomination and chose Ryan himself as his running mate.)
The Norquist speech was perfectly serviceable as a piece of strategic campaign rhetoric, but it is much less valuable as a characterization of how politics actually works. Unfortunately, the idea that the Republican-led Congress was a humming engine of policy change stymied in its objectives only by Barack Obama's veto pen received rather more credit than it deserved in the ensuing years, with the memorable "enough working digits" quip often quoted to suggest that the election of any Republican president would itself be sufficient to usher in a new conservative policy revolution.
Congressional Republicans from Ryan on down did their part to promote this view, as captured by this Washington Post curtain-raiser published on New Year's Day that portrayed the GOP as counting down the days until Trump formally took office in order to immediately begin the methodical implementation of an ambitious legislative agenda. But today, less than two months after the current session of Congress began and barely one month into Trump's presidency, several major policy items—repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, tax reform, immigration reform, entitlement reform, and so forth—already face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. Hopes are beginning to dim that the current Congress will indeed produce the bonanza of conservative policy achievements that Norquist envisioned.
So what went wrong?
The first problem with the Norquist quote was its substantial overstatement of the degree to which the congressional Republican Party was indeed a prolific font of policy-making. Congress in the Obama years was in fact quite unproductive in historical terms, and while Ryan in particular jealously guards his reputation as a self-described "policy guy," he prefers to lead by generating piles of "frameworks" and "summaries" rather than bringing specific legislative language up for votes on the House floor.
This approach can be successful at avoiding costly internal party fights and unpleasant trade-offs by effectively sweeping the annoying details and controversial aspects of policy change under the rug, but it has kept many key substantive questions from being resolved and has left the congressional GOP some distance away from the actual enactment of major legislation. Even the "Ryan budget" that Norquist singled out for specific praise in his 2012 speech relied on conveniently underspecified entitlement cuts to make its numbers work, which was hardly an accidental oversight by a party leadership that wishes to avoid politically inconvenient attacks on its long-term vision for Medicare and Medicaid.
Republicans did write and approve ACA repeal legislation that Obama vetoed in early 2016, but that too was a politically-motivated "message bill" intended as a campaign stunt rather than an actual test run for Republican health care policy-making—as confirmed by the fact that the Republican leadership is not planning to re-pass the same bill this year but has instead committed itself to an alternative strategy of "repeal and replace." Indeed, Republicans still don't seem to know what they want to do about health care nearly seven years after the ACA's passage, and increasingly deep divisions within the party are starting to threaten the prospect of fundamental reform surviving the legislative process this spring.
Even if the current Republican Congress were a bit more policy-oriented, however, the Norquist argument would still be deeply flawed as a characterization of how policy change has historically been enacted in the Untied States. There are several good reasons why Congress seldom takes the lead in enacting major legislation without significant presidential involvement. For one thing, some degree of internal disagreement is inevitable even if both congressional chambers are controlled by the same party—and only the president has the standing and capacity to resolve these disputes.
More fundamentally, members of Congress don't want to invest time and energy into developing legislation without the assurance of presidential support and political cover. Who wants to spend six months or more writing a bill, unavoidably casting some tough votes along the way, only to see it vetoed or its most controversial provisions disowned by the president? (Imagine how enthusiastic congressional Democrats would have been about passing the ACA if they thought Obama might blame them for including unpopular provisions like the individual mandate in the bill while taking credit only for the things voters like, such as coverage expansion and insurance regulations.)
Congress doesn't necessarily want the White House to boss it around or micromanage every detail, but presidential leadership in a larger sense is an absolutely necessary condition for effective legislating. And this is where Trump makes the congressional GOP's significant existing problems even worse.
Trump is habitually vague about his actual policy views on the major issues before Congress, from tax reform to health care. In part, this reflects Trump's limited personal familiarity with the substance of issues and (perhaps naive) apparent belief upon his ascension to the presidency that policy problems are easy to solve; his remark yesterday morning that "nobody knew that health care could be so complicated" inspired a mocking response in the media, but probably reflects a sincere realization that he's a bit out of his depth.
But Trump is also instinctively cagey, often demonstrating what seems to be a characteristic wariness of committing to specific policy objectives because of a fundamental fear that he's setting himself up for failure. What we've seen so far of the Trump administration also reveals it to be understaffed and inexperienced, with nobody apparently empowered to speak authoritatively for, or negotiate on behalf of, the president.
The result has been a blizzard of mixed signals. Republicans on the Hill still don't understand whether Trump will propose his own health care, infrastructure, or tax reform plans, what his major objectives are on these issues, what minimum provisions he will or won't accept, and which policies are his top priorities.
Presidential addresses to Congress, like tonight's event, are valuable opportunities for presidents to provide clarity on such matters. Publicly committing to a specific legislative agenda helps to convince Congress that the president is personally invested in its passage—and would thus share in the responsibility for any failure in enactment. Presidential agenda-setting does not guarantee legislative success, of course, but it is almost always a necessary condition for it.
For all of Trump's surface boldness and big talk, he has so far been a curiously risk-averse president when it comes to identifying specific policy objectives. But if Trump expects Congress to do the heavy lifting of policy-making and deliver him one bill after another on a platter, he is likely to wind up with few legislative achievements to show for his time in office. If he really does want to sign a lot of major legislation, a president needs a lot more than just the working digits to hold the pen.