Friday, August 25, 2017

Interview with Vox

Yesterday I talked to Andrew Prokop of Vox about my post earlier this week about the looming fight between Trump and the Republican congressional leadership. You can find an edited version of our conversation here. Thanks to Andrew for a great chat!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Success Has Eluded Trump, But He Could Win a Republican Civil War

Amidst all the daily developments during what is usually a slow news month, some of the most consequential are those that indicate a continued deterioration in the relationship between President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress. Just two weeks ago, I described why this tension had emerged and explained that it could lead to a catastrophic governing failure as soon as the end of September, when leaders in both the legislative and executive branches must act to fund the government and raise the federal debt ceiling. Since then, all available signs point to a likely crisis that could well lead to a government shutdown and possibly even a default on the national debt.

The presence of serious conflict between Trump and congressional Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, is now undeniable. Trump has taken to Twitter on several occasions to blast McConnell—and a few other senators—for failing to pass health care reform through the Senate and for refusing to abolish the legislative filibuster. Trump has also taken aim at Arizona senator Jeff Flake, who did vote for Obamacare repeal but wrote a book critical of Trump, implicitly endorsing his Republican primary challenger in 2018. Last night in Arizona, Trump make derogatory references to both Flake and John McCain while suggesting that he would be willing to shut down the government this fall if Congress did not approve funding for his proposed wall along the Mexican border. It doesn't help matters that Trump is also furious at congressional Republicans for supporting sanctions against Russia and declining to defend him on the issue.

Republicans in Congress are striking back, albeit more indirectly. Several recent news stories, full of juicy quotes from (mostly) anonymous members and staff, have chronicled widespread anger and frustration with the president on Capitol Hill. A New York Times piece clearly sourced from leaks by McConnell aides portrays the majority leader as doubting Trump's fitness for the presidency.

This is a battle of personalities, but it's also much more than that. Although the Trump presidency is barely seven months old, it's already clear that much of what both Trump and congressional Republicans promised to do in office is probably not going to happen. We are quickly moving to the stage at which the pursuit of success gives way to the assignment of blame for failure—especially since the incumbent president is not known for his patience, grasp of the legislative process, or eagerness to accept responsibility.

Trump may not get the ACA repeal bill or border wall that he demands, but he could still taste success—if he chooses to redefine success as winning a civil war within the Republican Party. Wherever one's own sympathies might lie in such a battle, Trump simply holds heavier artillery and superior field position:

1. Neither Trump nor Congress is particularly well-liked these days, but Trump is much more popular within the GOP. Trump's job approval among Republicans sits at about 80 percent, depending on the poll. McConnell's favorability is closer to 40 percent among Republicans, and Congress as a whole has dropped below 20 percent.

2. Trump will enjoy the support of most influential conservative media sources and personalities in any fight with Congress over health care, taxes, or the border wall, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Fox and Friends, and Breitbart—where ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has settled to wage "war" on people both inside and outside the Trump administration whom he views as impeding his favored ethno-nationalist policy agenda. The congressional GOP will have conservative print publications like National Review, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page on its side, but it's simply not an even match.

3. Trump has a louder mouthpiece and is more willing to use it aggressively. He employs Twitter and public addresses to hammer away at members of Congress, often by name, with contemptuous mockery. Many Republicans are willing to say dismissive or nasty things about Trump on background to reporters, but few will risk getting into a public war of words with the president. Trump is also less likely than his opponents to be constrained by the facts, which also offers him certain rhetorical advantages.

4. Even if Trump doesn't achieve passage of his legislative agenda, he can use his executive powers to claim other accomplishments, however modest they may be. Whereas a congressional majority that doesn't produce legislation gives its incumbents very little to run on in the next election—which, for the House and one-third of the Senate, is only a year away.

5. For all his bluster, Trump has a point when he notes that congressional Republicans have been making big promises for years about health care, taxes, and immigration. While Republicans accurately respond that the Trump administration has proven unhelpful on both the politics and policy front in developing legislative alternatives, the truth remains that the internal problems roiling the congressional GOP had appeared years before Trump came along and cannot be principally blamed on the current administration.

Because Trump hates looking "weak" more than just about anything, it's probably only a matter of time before he picks even more serious fights within the party. Such behavior would undoubtedly be counterproductive to the achievement of legislative goals, but Trump acts emotionally rather than strategically—and besides, some of those goals were unrealistic in any case. Forcing a government shutdown, knocking off a few Republican incumbents in party primaries, or even toppling a congressional leader or two might give him a hint of the pleasure that has so visibly eluded him so far in office. But it would also turn the Republican Party into an open battlefield.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Real Republican Fear about Trump's Charlottesville Response

Last week, I described how the tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans had become increasingly visible, and explained why this conflict was likely to get even worse in the weeks to come. But that was before this weekend's events in Charlottesville, which seem to have further widened the divide between the two. Trump's initial refusal to specifically denounce racist groups and hold them responsible for the disorder and violence that occurred in Virginia—he briefly gave a more forceful condemnation Monday afternoon after two days of pressure—not only contrasted strikingly with the public statements made by other Republican elected officials, but also provoked obliquely critical comments from some of them.

"Mr. President — we must call evil by its name," wrote Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed that it was "very important for the nation to hear [the president] describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists." Republicans were described as "privately wincing" and complaining that Trump had "botched" his response.

Aside from being sincerely horrified that the president of the United States did not view organized bigotry as an appropriate target for his otherwise sharp tongue, Trump's critics have focused on what they see as the political malpractice of passing up a chance to immediately and vehemently reject the belief system of a small and widely-loathed group of extremists. Fellow Republican politicians indeed have good reason to be seriously concerned about the flawed instincts of the president, and to wonder if their party has become hitched to the whims of a uniquely stubborn and tone-deaf figure.

But Trump's defective political antennae do not represent the biggest danger to the GOP. If the worst Republican nightmare comes true, Charlottesville is just the beginning of an emboldened white supremacist movement descending on one part of America after another. It can be difficult to predict how the typical voter will respond to the rise of civil unrest, but these are not Black Lives Matter activists scuffling with police; these are not liberals with rainbow flags and feline hats blocking traffic or protesting at airports. The pictures from Virginia are of gun-toting crackpots with torches, swastika tattoos, and ugly frog logos invading a town to beat up and run over the sons and daughters of the American middle class—and many who are far from the political left have nonetheless reacted to these developments with a reflexive sense of utter revulsion.

Republicans desperately want Trump to tell the white-power goons to get lost forever. Extremists and violent actors are a political fact of life, but it's tougher to escape association with them when many are wearing red baseball caps openly proclaiming their identification with the leader of one's own party. Worryingly, even Trump's more strongly-worded, and more positively-reviewed, statement today did not specifically reject the support he has personally received and continues to receive from the racist fringe. The president's manner also strongly suggests that he makes such public pronouncements reluctantly out of political necessity rather than enthusiastically out of personal conviction—which may do little to convince the leaders of these movements that he really wants them to cease their efforts.

If Charlottesville becomes a model replicated elsewhere rather than a single tragic departure, true panic will set in among Republican ranks. Trump has already given his party a lot of trouble during his brief time in office. But if the next two elections become a national referendum on whether it's a good thing that the Nazis and the Klan are back in the picture, few Republicans will be optimistic about their chances.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Trump's War with Congress Is Just Getting Started

How many Republican members of Congress are still wearing their Donald Trump socks?

When House and Senate Republicans held a policy retreat in Philadelphia during Trump's first week in office, one of the items in each member's gift bag was a pair of socks decorated with the new president's face. The socks, reported Politico, were claimed to be "a huge hit."

The retreat itself occurred amidst an atmosphere of palpable partisan optimism. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled ambitious plans for the coming session of Congress. Legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act would be on the president's desk by March, according to the leaders' proposed calendar, with a tax reform agreement following by the August recess—at which point the first phase of funding for Trump's promised southern border wall would be in place and a major infrastructure package would be "moving along." Trump himself made an appearance at the retreat, promising his fellow Republicans that "we're actually going to sign the [bills] that you're writing; you're not wasting your time" and vowing that "this Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever."

We have now reached the August recess, and the only major piece of legislation that Congress has enacted this year is a bipartisan bill tightening the sanctions on Russia (as punishment for its record of meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Republican presidential ticket) that Trump grumpily signed rather than risk the embarrassment of having his veto overridden.

That Republican hopes for a historically prolific congressional session have gone unfulfilled is hardly shocking in itself. It's common for presidents and other party leaders to entertain visions of legislative productivity that dissipate upon exposure to the political and procedural obstacles to achieving major policy change within the American system of government. Though there's little chance of the entire Republican wish list ultimately becoming law, plenty of time remains in the next 18 months for selected elements of the party platform to make their way through the House and Senate.

But salvaging what's left of the GOP's legislative agenda will still require extensive collaboration and cooperation between Congress and the White House. Unfortunately for Republicans, this relationship has been deteriorating rapidly over the past few weeks. The failure of health care reform in the Senate prompted a series of critical remarks from Trump, who also unsuccessfully demanded the abolition of the legislative filibuster. During the Senate health care debate, a member of Trump's cabinet threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski with retribution against her home state of Alaska if she did not support the ACA repeal plan backed by the White House. (She cast a decisive vote against it.)

Republican members of Congress have likewise become more open in distancing themselves from the president. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley publicly warned Trump not to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch rejected Trump's demands that Republicans continue to work on hammering out a health care bill, and Senator Jeff Flake published a book containing sharp criticism of Trump. On Monday, Mitch McConnell blamed Trump for creating unrealistic expectations about the ability of Congress to quickly deliver significant legislative achievements ahead of "artificial deadlines"—even though McConnell himself had promised swift action on the party agenda during the Republican retreat in January. McConnell's remarks, in turn, provoked sharp counterattacks from White House aide Dan Scavino and Trump loyalist Sean Hannity.

Though Trump critics wish for an even less deferential Congress, this is still a very unusual degree of tension between two branches under control of the same party—especially since the Trump presidency is barely six months old. And it's about to get worse.

Before Congress can even think about making major progress on issues like tax reform, it needs to raise the federal debt ceiling and pass at least a temporary resolution funding the government past the end of the current fiscal year (September 30) while it works out a longer-term appropriations plan. Both tasks will require bipartisan agreement. Democratic support will be necessary in the Senate to avert a filibuster, and may well be needed in the House as well to compensate for what may be plentiful nay votes from the Republican side of the aisle on one or both measures.

There will be no "big wins" for Trump in the near future. The best-case scenario for resolving these responsibilities simply keeps the federal buildings open and the debt serviced with a minimum amount of legislative disarray; Democrats have considerable leverage and no reason to support legislation that contains a major rightward policy shift on any issue. In the worst-case outcome, the process falls apart and the government shuts down or defaults on its obligations—both with potentially disastrous consequences for both the president and the ruling party in Congress.

This is also very treacherous ground for Paul Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner was deposed from the speakership by rebellious conservative purists in large part because he regularly found it necessary to push must-pass legislation through the House with more Democratic than Republican votes. Ryan is similarly at risk of sustaining considerable damage in the upcoming debt ceiling fight, with one anonymous Republican House member telling the Huffington Post that legislation raising the debt ceiling without delivering on other conservative priorities would mark "the beginning of the end of the Ryan speakership," even though such a proposal might be the only bill that could pass the Senate and avert a governing catastrophe.

At least Boehner, for all his problems, didn't have Trump to deal with. About the best that Ryan and McConnell can hope for is that they can guide bipartisan bills through Congress before the clock runs out and that Trump will sign them while merely making a few snide remarks. But what if Trump sides with the hard-liners demanding large spending cuts, or regulatory repeal, or funding for his border wall? What if he fails to come to the defense of party leaders facing a mutiny from within their ranks? What if he vetoes a bill sent to his desk, plunging the nation into a crisis?

Normally, there is a perception of mutual linked fate that prevents a president and his congressional party from letting their differences become too vast or too public. But Trump is an inexperienced and impatient president who is incapable of taking responsibility for setbacks. He is getting to a point in his presidency where he's going to need an answer for the question of why he hasn't delivered on all of his big, beautiful promises. Congress will be an irresistible scapegoat for his failures; the only uncertainty is whether the smooth functioning of the federal government is a casualty of the resulting crossfire.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

So Donald Trump Turned Out to Be a Conservative After All

Whatever happened to the idea that Donald Trump wasn't really a conservative? Matt Grossmann and I explain how Trump is turning out to be the most conservative president in modern history today over at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.