Was TrumpCare’s Failure a Turning Point?

Republicans in Congress are still a long way from revolting against Trump. But most of them have stopped covering for him. That won’t create a sharp break in his (already small) support from the public, but it could lead to a long, slow erosion.

Right now it is hard to remember, but the story of the fall campaign and the early days of the new administration was how the various wings of the Republican Party were making peace with Trump’s leadership. Libertarians overlooked his authoritarian side. Theocrats forgave his amoral life and his complete ignorance of Christianity. Corporatists looked forward to tax cuts and deregulation, while agreeing to disagree with him about trade and immigration. NeoCons chose to listen to his belligerent rhetoric (defeat ISIS in 30 days) rather than his isolationist rhetoric (re-evaluate our commitment to NATO).

It’s hard to estimate exactly, but probably only about half of Trump’s voters were truly happy about his victory. The other half had reservations, but eventually came around to the idea that any Republican president, no matter how superficial his connection to the causes that had previously defined the party, would be better than Hillary Clinton. Even Ted Cruz, who famously refused to endorse Trump during his speech at the Republican Convention in July, and who had good reason to remember Trump’s scurrilous attacks against his wife and father, announced in September “after many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience” that he would vote for Trump.

Would Democrats fold? After the election, Trump benefited from a somewhat smaller version of the public goodwill that goes out to all new presidents. His favorables never reached 50% (45.5% on Inauguration Day according to 538’s weighted average), but they exceeded his unfavorables (41.3%). Americans like to give the new guy a chance, and so the transition-period talk was not about the continuing resistance of the never-Trump Republicans, but instead about whether red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) or Heidi Heitkamp (ND) could be coaxed into supporting him on specific issues. And if Trump chose to begin his administration with proposals that leaned Democratic — a Bernie-Sanders-like infrastructure program or using the government’s negotiating power to beat down drug prices (both issues he had raised during the campaign) — Democratic resistance in Congress might well crumble.

Those of us who feared Trump’s fascist leanings — contempt for democratic traditions and the rule of law, self-dealing, lack of transparency, scapegoating of racial and religious minorities, encouragement of violence, and total disregard for truth — more than his policy commitments had every reason to worry that his authoritarianism might wind up being popular.

If you were among the millions who showed up for one of the Women’s Marches on January 21, you may have wondered what you were accomplishing, beyond having a feel-good moment with like-minded people. In retrospect, the marches were pivotal: They (and the bunker-mentality response from Trump and his people) all but ended talk of Democrats giving in to Trump. That was the first turning point.

The Faustian bargain. Nonetheless, it seemed to go without saying that congressional Republicans would get in line behind him, and they did. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan muted their criticism of the clearly unconstitutional first version of Trump’s travel ban. McConnell shepherded Trump’s somewhat bizarre cabinet appointments through the Senate, and blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Russia scandal. Ryan backed up Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes when he tried to subvert the House’s Russia investigation, and defended Trump’s firing of James Comey. Both of them turned a blind eye to Trump’s widespread conflicts of interest.

The implied agreement seemed to go like this: Whatever leaders like Ryan and McConnell thought of Trump as a man or a leader, unified Republican control of the branches of government would open the way to a long list of conservative proposals, which Ryan and McConnell would assemble. Trump, having few real policy ideas of his own, would sell those proposals to his supporters (who probably would be hurt by many of them) and then sign the bills once Congress passed them. The possibility of making Medicaid a block grant to the states and putting a hard cap on its growth, Ryan said, was something he’d been dreaming about since college. Why should he screw those dreams up by fulfilling Congress’ constitutional duty to check and balance the executive branch?

So: sweep Russia under the rug, let Trump get away with whatever scams he wants to run, and in exchange get a hard-right majority on the Supreme Court, repeal of ObamaCare, significant cuts to safety-net programs, big tax breaks for Republican special interests, and cover from the Justice Department for voter-suppression and gerrymandering efforts that could guarantee Republican domination of Congress into the indefinite future. What a deal!

ObamaCare repeal was supposed to be the easy part of that agenda. During the campaign, Trump promised “immediate” repeal. And even after things got real, when the new Congress began meeting in January, legislation was supposed to be on President Trump’s desk by February 20. But we are now in Congress’ August recess, with ObamaCare repeal in ruins and the rest of the legislative agenda still stuck on Square One.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one problem is that Trump has proved to be a terrible salesman. Aside from occasionally tweeting about how “terrific” and “beautiful” the Republican healthcare plan was — whichever one seemed most likely to pass at the moment — he did nothing to rally public support, and little to corral reluctant Republican votes in Congress. His self-created reputation as a great deal-maker proved to be empty. He never spoke to the nation as a whole about healthcare or made a case for his administration’s vision, whatever it is. He was quick to take credit for successes and distance himself from failures. The House bill that he celebrated in May was “mean” just a few weeks later.

Worse, media attention that might have been marshaled behind the Republican agenda has again and again been diverted by Trump himself and the circus atmosphere of his White House. In addition to his personal spats and the infighting of his people, the Russia scandal that he swore was nothing keeps looking more and more like something. Again and again, his people have been forgetful or dishonest about their meetings with Russians, and Trump himself has participated in misleading the public. Even Republicans who want to cover for their party’s president have to wonder what exactly he’s covering up.

In short, congressional Republicans may not have ever liked Trump or approved of him as the leader of their party, but they would have been happy to march behind him to victory. What they’re not prepared to do is follow him off the cliff to defeat.

The second turning. So here’s what we’ve seen recently.

  • Congress overwhelmingly passed new Russia sanctions, which Trump can’t remove without congressional approval.
  • After the TrumpCare defeat, Trump demanded the Senate try again, and not consider any other legislation or leave for vacation until they passed something on healthcare. The Senate ignored him.
  • Some Republican senators are looking for a bipartisan fix for the ObamaCare exchanges (along the lines I discussed last week).
  • The Senate didn’t officially adjourn for the August recess. This prevents Trump from replacing Jeff Sessions via a recess appointment without Senate hearings, which was part of the most likely fire-Mueller scenario. This signal of distrust is something the Senate majority has never before done to a president of its own party.
  • Two bipartisan proposals are being floated to prevent Trump from firing Mueller.
  • A number of Republicans (including Mike Pence, though he denies it) are making preliminary moves in Iowa, as if they didn’t expect Trump to be a factor in 2020. John Kasich and/or Ben Sasse might be planning to challenge Trump if he does run. John McCain comments: “They see weakness in this president. Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in.”
  • Congress shows no signs of taking up the immigration plan the White House endorsed this week.

The current face of Republican resistance to Trump is Senator Jeff Flake, author of the new book Conscience of a Conservative, a section of which was published recently in Politico Magazine:

If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?

This isn’t how things were supposed to go. By now, Republicans were supposed to be basking in the glow not just of stealing a Supreme Court seat, but of repealing ObamaCare, awarding their donors a tax cut, and maybe even creating some jobs with an infrastructure program. If any Republicans in Congress harbored doubts about the Trump administration, they would be quiet for fear of a primary challenge from his supporters. Red-state Democrats and maybe even the party leaders would be submissive, looking for ways to argue that they could work with Trump.

If the Women’s Marches were the first turning away from that scenario, I believe we are in the middle of the second.

It would be a mistake to expect this turning to go very far very fast. Elected Republicans are not likely to join the resistance anytime soon. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the effect they can produce just by going silent and working behind the scenes.

For example, look at Trump’s effort to undermine the Mueller investigation. He has been building a witch-hunt narrative and claiming that Mueller is motivated by conflicts of interest, with the obvious intent to justify firing Mueller and shutting his investigation down. Establishment Republicans could be echoing those points. They could have left the door open for a recess-appointed attorney general who could then fire Mueller. That would have left their own hands clean, and they could have tut-tutted about the firing without doing anything.

Instead, most congressional Republicans continue to endorse Mueller’s integrity, and they closed the back door to his firing.

They will continue to support the administration when it puts forward policies that are long-term pieces of the broader Republican agenda. But as Trump continues to make bad decisions, spew outrageous misinformation, and pick fights with whoever raises his ire from moment to moment, more and more he will be defended only White House flacks like Kellyanne Conway, or dedicated Trumpists like Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani. Republicans of independent authority will stand aside.

That silence will be felt. It will not lead to a sudden crash in Trump’s approval among Republicans (which is still fairly high). But the continuing lack of credible defense will cause a slow erosion. And at some point, that erosion might make direct Republican resistance a politically viable course.

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  • Larry Benjamin  On August 7, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I was listening to the Michael Savage show the day after the Trumpcare failure. Savage, who has been a fervent Trump supporter from day one, expressed disappointment with Trump’s negotiating skills for his inability to force Congress to do his bidding. He also said that this would be the last time “an entertainer” would be elected – that next time we will have a career politician in the White House. Savage seems to reflect, or even drive the sentiments of Trump’s most loyal supporters, so this could presage their disillusion in someone the expected to be their savior.

    During the campaign, there was talk from a few quarters of “Trumpism,” along with questioning whether Trump himself was its best proponent. One concern from the left was whether his loss would result in a smoother, more credible version of him in 2020. I don’t think we have to worry about that – Trump is incapable of starting a movement or passing the baton to anyone else, and doesn’t seem interested in doing so or even aware that this is an option.


  • […] but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that […]

  • By Faustian Bargain | The Weekly Sift on August 7, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    […] with two parts. Republicans in Congress have begun backing away from Trump, which I cover in “Was TrumpCare’s Failure a Turning Point?” The other piece of that story is Trump going back to his base, scapegoating immigrants and […]

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