On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed what had already been apparent for months: Congress is not going to enact infrastructure legislation this year. In its early weeks, Trump treated infrastructure investment as a major goal of his presidency; as recently as January's State of the Union address, it served as one of the primary elements of his proposed legislative agenda. But the details of the plan remained vague, enthusiasm among congressional Republicans was palpably limited, and periodic attempts by the White House to talk up the issue always seemed to be derailed by unrelated distractions of its own making.
Even in a conventional administration, "presidential initiative hits dead end in Congress" is hardly an unusual story. But the death of the infrastructure proposal also tells us something about the current state not only of the Trump presidency, but of the wider Republican Party.
Most national political leaders, most of the time, have historically operated under the assumption that they will be rewarded by the electorate for delivering widely popular policies and benefits; in the pithy words of Bill O'Reilly, voters are thought to "want stuff." This inclination tends to provide a brake on ideological extremity, encouraging members of the majority party to resolve their internal differences in order to amass a collective record of productivity and accomplishment. The ability to claim credit for working the system to provide funding for projects in their home states and districts was once seen as a significant advantage for incumbents running for reelection—and even as an explanation for the structure of Congress itself. Previous presidents have likewise habitually advanced policy priorities that were popular with average voters—from Bill Clinton's crime bill and welfare reform to George W. Bush's prescription drug benefits and public education funding—even if they departed at times from party orthodoxy.
But today's ideologically-oriented Republican Party increasingly rejects this logic. Rank-and-file Republicans, increasingly afraid (with good reason) of primary challenges from the right, are reluctant to support centrist or bipartisan legislation regardless of its overall popularity. Legislative leaders, who normally concern themselves with protecting the party's majority by playing to key voters in competitive seats, must now also keep a worried eye on their own right flank. The Senate majority leader has been cast as a sellout to conservatism by members of his own party in several Republican primaries this year, while the speaker of the House is departing from Congress rather than endanger future political ambitions by risking his reputation for ideological fidelity.
The president has found it politically useful to sell himself in public as a get-it-done Mr. Fix-It rather than a conservative thinker—and, indeed, media coverage during the 2016 campaign mostly adopted Trump's own framing of himself as a maverick outsider dedicated to "making deals" rather than upholding philosophical principles. But Trump hasn't placed much emphasis on backing up such pronouncements with action once in office, instead amassing a strongly conservative record in both personnel and policy matters.
Failing to pass an infrastructure bill might deprive Trump and congressional Republicans of a political advantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Spending more money on infrastructure is much more popular with the American public than Congress's actual priorities this session: cutting taxes on the wealthy and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Imagine a President Trump who planned to spend the coming summer touring the country, triumphantly demonstrating his patriotic dedication to rebuilding the nation with each well-televised ribbon-cutting ceremony. Other Republicans, too, would have received tangible benefits to offer voters whose disapproval of Trump's personal behavior might have been tempered by his success in demonstrating effectiveness in office—to the endless frustration of Democratic congressional challengers.
Instead, Republicans have made a different choice. Party leaders are desperate to avoid further alienating a skeptical party base that they believe is already dissatisfied by the lack of spending cuts in the March omnibus appropriations bill, and that might treat additional "pork barrel" legislation as an outright ideological betrayal. Most top Republican politicians, including Trump himself, are daily consumers of Fox News and conservative talk radio who worry more about stimulating high turnout among Republican voters than about attracting electoral support from outside the party; as a result, they wish to avoid doing anything that might lead to critical coverage from right-of-center media. Most, Trump presumably excepted, are also themselves committed conservatives whose personal political beliefs would also discourage support for a major federal infrastructure initiative.
The demise of Trump's infrastructure plan thus represents both a revealing window into the current Republican Party and a collective political bet placed by Republican politicians on the smartest strategy for contesting the 2018—and, perhaps, 2020—elections. One notable characteristic of the Trump era is a growing perception that voter support, at least on the right, is best sustained via symbolic appeals rather than policy deliverables. The GOP's adherence to this hypothesis may ultimately risk a fatal backlash led by the rest of the public against a presidency that has so far offered more drama than substantive accomplishment. But it surely holds a natural allure to a president who seems much more inclined to verbal volatility than applied action, and it may prove to be a sufficient way for Republicans to rally their own side in the coming electoral battles with an energized Democratic opposition.