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Republicans Have Lost The Gamble They Took On Donald Trump

Trump And GOP Elephant

When Republican leaders on Capitol Hill began to line up behind Donald Trump after the Republican National Convention, and later in the wake of his election as President in November, they were effectively gambling. The gamble was that they could use Trump’s Presidency as what effectively amounts to a rubber stamp that would allow them to pass whatever legislation they wanted, whether it be Obamacare repeal, tax reform, the budget, or anything else, and they could count on President to sign it into law. All they’d have to do is look past the President’s other attributes, whether it was the Twitter habit, his comments to crowds at rallies, his statements to the press, or whatever his spokespersons in the White House might say, or his other incendiary rhetoric. The only thing that mattered is that Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency for the first time since 2005 and that they would have a far more compliant President in the White House than even George W. Bush proved to be. From a certain point of view, I suppose, it was an argument that had at least some sense of internal logic, as long as you assumed that the damage that the GOP would suffer from being compliant to Trump would be less severe than the benefits it would receive from the ability to adopt policy into law.

Just short of eight months into Trump’s Presidency, it seems fairly clear that the gamble has failed. Despite seven years of rhetoric, fundraising, campaigning, and effort, the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has failed and seems unlikely to be revived any time prior to the 2018 midterms. There isn’t even a tax reform bill on the table yet, never mind have there been any public hearings on the matter. The only thing that happened with the budget for the next Fiscal Year is that the can was kicked down the road via yet another continuing resolution. The debt ceiling wasn’t extended for eighteen months like Republicans wanted, but only for thirty days. And, most importantly, both of those items were only taken off the checklist because the President made a deal with House and Senate Democrats to pass something that neither the House GOP nor the Senate GOP supported.  The only successes that Republicans can point to over the past 235 days are a handful of bills that repealed some minor regulations from the Obama years and the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Beyond that, at least as this point, it certainly seems as though the Republican Party in general, and Congressional and Senate Republicans in particular, have lost their gamble spectacularly.

As Michael Gerson notes at The Washington Post, the wager has been a loss at all conceivable levels:

Those Republicans who believe that Trump is being cynical, disloyal or politically calculating continue to misunderstand the man. The president has no discernible political philosophy or strong policy views to betray. His leadership consists mainly of instincts, reflexes and prejudices, which often have nothing to do with self-interest. He has a genius for fame, which usually involves attention-attracting unpredictability and transgressiveness. Trump reads events moment by moment, making him a cork on the waves of cable coverage. Any choice he makes is correct by definition, because he has made it. And any person — on his staff or on Capitol Hill — who does not precisely mimic his political gyrations is disloyal and should be punished.

(…)

The wager has been a disaster in the realm of policy. During legislative debates on issues such as health care, Trump has been erratic, unfocused, impatient and frighteningly ignorant. His White House policy staff — some of whom are responsible and talented — try to work with Capitol Hill, but always under the threat that their efforts will be destroyed by a tweet. Congressional Republicans see the White House as a basket case, don’t think that any administration official speaks authoritatively for the president and increasingly fear entering the midterm elections entirely naked of accomplishment.

The wager has been a disaster in the realm of politics. The president takes it as an accomplishment to secure the support of about 35 percent of the public. This leaves Republicans in the worst of political worlds, where the intensity of Trump’s base is increased by words and policies that alienate the majority — making Trump a powerful force within the party and a scary, galvanizing figure beyond it. The damage is broad, profound and generational. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll recorded 26 percent approval for the president among those aged 18 to 34.

The wager has been a moral disaster. News accounts following Trump’s betrayal of Republican leaders on the debt limit reported them to be “livid.” What does it tell us about Republican politicians that they were livid about a three-month debt-limit extension but not so much about misogyny, nativism and flirtation with racism? Or maybe they were, but they still thought the wager might work. Such lack of wisdom and proportion is an indictment as well.

Gerson is,  of course, absolutely correct. Instead of getting a compliant rubber stamp, Republicans on Capitol Hill got the same erratic, inflammatory blowhard with a tendency to shift randomly from topic to topic depending on his own whims, whatever he happens to see on Fox & Friends or Sean Hannity’s television program, or what he reads on websites like Breitbart News. They got the same man who kicked off his campaign accusing Mexican immigrants to the United States of being rapists and criminals, insulted John McCain’s military record despite being someone who avoided service in the same war that McCain had been injured in, attacked the integrity of a sitting Federal Judge, attacked a Gold Star Family, and argued in favor of a policy that would ban all Muslims from coming to the United States. On the policy and political side, they got someone who was as rudderless and without any discernible political philosophy who clearly had no understanding of any number of important issues facing the country, and totally uninterested in learning about what he doesn’t know, as he revealed himself to be on the campaign trail. And perhaps most importantly, they got a President who is already under investigation in what could be one of the most serious political scandals to hit an American President in thirty years.

It’s hard to feel sorry for Republicans, of course. Had they been paying attention during the campaign, they would have heeded the warnings from people within their own party who were talking about the dangers that Trump represented both to the party and the country and did what they could to compel Republicans to act in time to stop him. Instead of doing that, though, most Republicans in a position to act either stood on the sidelines or simply disappeared from public view. It was only in the most extreme cases, such as Trump’s comments about McCain, Megyn Kelly, the Khan family, or Judge Curiel, or when Trump proposed his Muslim ban, that officials spoke out against Trump. During his Presidency, it’s only been things such as Trump’s incendiary comments about the events in Charlottesville that have caused Republicans on Capitol Hill. Given that, there’s support for the idea that these people have gotten what they deserve for backing Trump to begin with. Conversely, there’s little reason to feel sorry for these leaders given the fact that this is all a result of the conscious choice of leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, and the nation as a whole, it’s difficult to find any reason to feel sorry for them. They made the choice, now they’ll have to live with the consequences.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Awful as it is to contemplate, Trump got to be president precisely because he appealed to the worst in people. Apparently 98% of his supporters will continue to back him no matter what he says or does. They’re so consumed by hatred of everything that nothing else matters.

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  2. al-Ameda says:

    The gamble was that they could use Trump’s Presidency as what effectively amounts to a rubber stamp that would allow them to pass whatever legislation they wanted, whether it be Obamacare repeal, tax reform, the budget, or anything else, and they could count on President to sign it into law.

    I have to tell you, so far, I see the Trump Administration as a very unfortunate success.

    His style is erratic and he thrives in being chaotic and crude, but a lot of that is a distraction. All the while we critique his idiotic and idiosyncratic style, the reality is that Republicans still have control of the entire federal government, and as such, unless a LOT of Republicans break ranks, they’re still going to pass much of the legislation they want.

    Apart from the legislative agenda, just look at his cabinet. Some appointees, such as Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt, are pushing forward a very conservative agenda that includes a de-emphasis of support for public schools, roll back of important environmental regulations, relinquishment of control of many federal lands to private resource exploitation companies. And, oh yeah, Neil Gorsuch and many more appointments to our federal courts.

    The conservative rush is on. Liberals may realize a few minor successes along the way, but unless the 2018 mid-terms change the congressional calculus it’s going to be a lot more of the same.

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  3. @Doug: It isn’t that they gambled, it is that they didn’t have a choice. He was nominated by GOP voters and placed in the WH by GOP voters. The GOP congressional leadership had to accept him.

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  4. The stunning and truly interesting aspect of the last 8 months is the GOP inability to effectively uses its congressional majorities to further any major parts of their agenda.

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  5. Kylopod says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He was nominated by GOP voters and placed in the WH by GOP voters. The GOP congressional leadership had to accept him.

    Well, no, as soon as he was nominated they could have said he’s a moral abomination and grossly unqualified and we refuse to support him, even if that means giving up our chance at the White House.

    Is it realistic the Republican leaders would have done that? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that it constituted the most grotesque act of soul-selling in modern American history. History will not look kindly on them.

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  6. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed they had no choice. Trump was what the primary voters wanted. In Massachusetts, he got 50% of the vote. Kasich got 18%, and all the rest in the single digits.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Too much infighting and disagreeing about what, exactly, the agenda is.

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  7. Facebones says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Exactly. If the gamble was that Trump would rubber stamp any regressive tax bill or Obamacare repeal, then it hasn’t failed because of Trump. It’s failed because a Republican party that controls both house and senate can’t pass anything.

    Trump is a camera whore and craves signing ceremonies so much he invented fake ones just so he could sign something. He would absolutely sign anything put in front of him, but Ryan and McConnell have failed spectacularly in giving him bills to sign.

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  8. @Kylopod:

    Well, no, as soon as he was nominated they could have said he’s a moral abomination and grossly unqualified and we refuse to support him, even if that means giving up our chance at the White House.

    Is it realistic the Republican leaders would have done that? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that it constituted the most grotesque act of soul-selling in modern American history. History will not look kindly on them.

    Perhaps, but that is a different argument. What we saw was expected partisan behavior in a presidential system, plain and simple. Not a calculated risk, expected behavior.

    What you are describing is rebellion, which is highly unlikely under any circumstances.

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  9. @Kylopod:

    Well, no, as soon as he was nominated they could have said he’s a moral abomination and grossly unqualified and we refuse to support him, even if that means giving up our chance at the White House.

    Or they could have followed the example of incumbents like Rob Portman, and many of the GOP candidates, for Governor did and not talk about Trump much if at all and not appear with him on a campaign stage.

    That’s not an open rebellion of any kind.

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  10. In addition, there’s also the reality of the Republicans who chose to endorse Trump before the convention, or before it was obvious that he was going to be the nominee. In those cases, it most assuredly was a gamble.

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  11. @Doug Mataconis:

    In addition, there’s also the reality of the Republicans who chose to endorse Trump before the convention, or before it was obvious that he was going to be the nominee. In those cases, it most assuredly was a gamble

    .

    At that point, it was a political choice no different than endorsing some other candidate. It isn’t as if Trump doesn’t appeal to a hefty faction of the party.

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    The GOP agenda is failing because the GOP agenda is dumb. Their ideology is discredited. No one outside of Wall Street still believes in cutting taxes for rich people. Belief in ‘free trade’ is declining. And they’ve just simply lost on all the social issues. They’ve got nothing.

    It’s also failing because in this day and age passing major legislation requires an actively-involved president who knows how to rally opinion. Trump ain’t that guy.

    Unpopular, pointless agenda plus idiot POTUS ≠ Success.

    The only coherent part of the Right that still believes in anything beyond the next election is the alt-right, the racists. They are the GOP now. The GOP minus Trump is two dozen opinion writers and a bare handful of GOP Senators. There is no GOP left to save. It’s dead, Jim.

    The conscience move is a GOP schism. Either the 10% of the GOP still in possession of a conscience breaks off to form an independent party, or they form an independent Congressional caucus and join with Democrats. But make no mistake, the Republican Party is now a racist party and those wishing to separate themselves from that are not a majority, they’re the pitiful few piling into lifeboats. So-called GOP moderates can either be Vichy or Maquis. The Vichy Republicans will tell themselves comforting lies about moderating from within and, in the end, win nothing but scorn. The Maquis Republicans will be seen by history as heroes.

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  13. Joe says:

    I agree with @Facebones. Much as I loathe Trump and support Obamacare, any attempt to undo Obamacare should have come from the Congress who has been claiming to have a better plan for 7 years. I suspect a more talented politician in the WH could have found some way to improve public support, but the abject lack of even an marginally acceptable vehicle to repeal and replace is all on Congress.

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    There may have been some vague thoughts about getting something passed, but the reality is that Republicans have long suffered from delusions of competence. The Republican Party is the Party of Lies, where belief in fairy stories and contempt of facts, reasearch and even basic knowledge is the minimum for entry. The Republican congress critters who manage to surface an actual cooherent idea are not only rare, but are entirely composed of mewling ambition. The vast majority are blowhards and bullsh*tters who actually seemed to believe that their half formed thoughts not only showed wisdom but actually represented coherent plans. It was astounding to watch these mouth breathers as they discovered that healthcare was actually complicated and that they had literally no concept of what was involved. They had been slapped on the back and feted by the Koch industrial complex, who surely must be laughing at the pack of imbeciles they buy so cheaply. And the Koch’s themselves pay real money to create “Think Tanks” where actual intelligent Republicans throw integrity out the door and apply their finest thinking to ever more creative ways to fondle their benefactors and tell them what they want to hear.

    But I better stop here, or I may tell you what I really think of the modern Republican Party….

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  15. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Or they could have followed the example of incumbents like Rob Portman, and many of the GOP candidates, for Governor did and not talk about Trump much if at all and not appear with him on a campaign stage.

    Or they could have done what many conservative pundits and Republican-leaning newspapers across the nation did: endorse Hillary Clinton.

    Everything they claimed was disqualifying about Hillary, Trump did something worse. For instance, how can any sane person claim the Clinton Foundation was a bigger deal than Trump University?

    Indeed, sane Republicans knew it wasn’t. But they endorsed Trump anyway–or at least failed to endorse the only candidate who could stop him.

    And it wasn’t like Trump was some terrible but benign choice. It was also incredibly dangerous. And the Republican leaders knew it–and yet they still supported him.

    The only other comparably irresponsible act in recent history was the elevation of Sarah Palin by people who knew she wasn’t prepared to step into the presidency in the event of emergency.

    This is much worse.

    And don’t tell me, “Well, the Democratic Party would have behaved the same way if they were faced with a similar nominee.” That’s the equivalent of saying, “If my mama had wheels, she’d be a wagon.” The fact is that the Dems did not nominate a Trump-like candidate, and despite the occasional claims of the NeverTrumpers, it’s inconceivable they ever would have.

    The GOP did nominate Trump, and the leaders of the party got behind a man they knew was grossly unqualified, deeply corrupt, and obviously unfit for the office, because they thought that if they got their tax cuts and their SCOTUS picks, they just might muddle through and the tradeoff would be worthwhile. There must be a ninth circle of hell reserved for these folks.

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  16. Joe says:

    @Kylopod:

    The Democrats actually tried to impose some party discipline on their candidates insofar as the party clearly took steps to prefer Hillary – a long-time dues paying party member – over Bernie – not actually a member of the party. People called it unfair, but it presents the question of whose party is it? If a party has a basic platform and a core ideology, it can exclude (or at least impede) people who don’t share that ideology. It says something about the Republican party that they could not exclude Trump because they have no core ideology they’re willing to defend against interloper candidates.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    On the policy and political side, they got someone who was as rudderless and without any discernible political philosophy who clearly had no understanding of any number of important issues facing the country, and totally uninterested in learning about what he doesn’t know, as he revealed himself to be on the campaign trail.

    Now who does that sound like? Oooh I know, just like the rest of today’s GOP!

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  18. Kylopod says:

    @Joe: I’ve said it before, but to me one of the most revealing moments was when Lindsay Graham tweeted that he couldn’t “in good conscience support Donald Trump because I do not believe he is a reliable Republican conservative.”

    Republican politicians weren’t happy with Trump as the nominee, but the main things that were disqualifying about Trump were exactly the things that a good chunk of GOP voters love about him. They can’t call him a racist, not when 44% of Republican voters are saying discrimination against white folks is worse than discrimination against blacks or Hispanics.

    So they were reduced to saying Trump is absolutely unacceptable, completely unfit for the office because…he’s not a reliable conservative.

    It was as if Louis Farrakhan were somehow to win the Democratic nomination and the response from other Democrats would be that they can’t support him because he’s not a “reliable progressive.”

    That’s where the GOP is at, and why they were–why they continue to be–so impotent in the face of Trump. They know he’s a disaster, but they can’t say so outright because they created him. They’re Dr. Frankenstein, and he’s the Monster.

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  19. Tyrell says:

    “made a deal with House and Senate Democrats”: I saw photos of Trump meeting there with Schumer, Pelosi, and some others. I am not a fan of Nancy’s, but she did seem to be enjoying their little get together. I wistfully thought back to the days I remember of other meetings: Kennedy, Johnson*, Nixon, and others met with leaders of both parties. That is how things used to work. That is how things got done back then. Shocking isn’t it? Those days seem so long ago. You put the country’s leaders together in a room, probably with some fine bourbon and good food – no telling what will get done. Reagan and O’Neill argued like two junkyard dogs in public, but in private made some good deals over good drinks and cigars.
    Who knows what they might get done next: a tax reform bill perhaps?
    *Lyndon Johnson – the most skillful politician of modern times. Read “The Path of Power” by Robert Caro. You will see a master leader at work. That has been missing for several years.
    “They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars” (Cash, “Folsom Prison”)

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  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    The House asks Trump to trash his base.

    This must have been a tough vote for some in the HoR.

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  21. teve tory says:

    good article in Bloomberg about how the Apprentice and trump himself had better ratings with minorities than with white people. Then as far back as 2011 trump threw out some “they’re taking our jobs” lines and GOP crowds went berserk, and Trump was like, “Well okay then.” and it was on.

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  22. MBunge says:

    The debt ceiling bill was passed with the support of the majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate. How can Mataconis try to portray something as a great betrayal when THE MAJORITY of the GOP in Congress supported it?

    And let us not forget that it is the minority who voted against the deal who wish to use the debt ceiling as a knife at the throat of the U.S. (and global) economy to enact policy changes opposed by the overwhelming majority of both the voters and their elected officials.

    What this post illustrates is that it isn’t Trump’s racism or sexism or any other character issues that really bothers Mataconis. What truly vexes him is that Trump might finally shatter the death grip kooky right wing ideologues and unpatriotic partisan hacks have on the GOP and politics in general. He’s perfectly content with Mitch McConnell disregarding his duty as a Senator and an American by making the defeat of Barack Obama more important that bettering the lives of his countrymen. And Mataconis is apparently pleased as punch with the stunted adolescent Objectivism of Paul Ryan which would blithely harm tens of millions of Americans in service of self-centered Utopian/Nietzschean delusions.

    Mike

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