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.