Why Unified Republican Government Went Rapidly Off The Rails

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Never before has a presidency gone off the rails so fast.

Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Bill Clinton was impeached. George W. Bush spiraled into political oblivion after the Iraq misadventure, the failed attempt to overhaul Social Security, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

But all these crises happened several years into their respective administrations, and after significant successes. Trump, just two months into his first term, with his approval ratings at historic lows and dogged by scandals, is on a plane of his own.

Former members of Congress, former congressional staffers, and experts tell TPM that they have never seen anything like the incompetence, distrust, and public airing of grievances that characterize the current relationship between President Trump and a Congress controlled by his own party, and say it is likely to stall the legislative agenda going forward.

On a darker note, they warn that Trump, mired in scandal and ineffectualness, may succumb to his own authoritarian impulses.

Both sides new to the game

Unified Republican control of Washington looks anything but unified.

President Trump has taken to singling out individuals and groups of Republican lawmakers for public ridicule on social media. Moderate Republicans are refusing to meet with their hardline conservative colleagues, and are openly attacking them in the press.

One lawmaker allied with the president, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), told reporters in mid-March that communication has completely broken down among House Republicans.

“I’ve never seen this. People are refusing to talk to each other. They’re storming past each other. This is not good,” he said. “There is bitterness within our conference that’s going to take time to heal.”

Cliff Stearns, a Republican who represented northern Florida for 12 terms in Congress, told TPM that much of the dysfunction today stems from the fact that Trump “lacks familiarity with how Congress works.” But so, too, do many of the congressional Republicans attempting to work with him. Seventy-seven percent of all Republicans in Congress have never served under a Republican president, and a full quarter of the House of Representatives has two years of congressional experience or less.

“None of these people were there when we had the markups for the Affordable Care Act,” said Stearns, who served on one of the key committees to craft the 2010 bill. “They weren’t there watching all the amendments we had and all of our differences of opinion. It would have been helpful to have that kind of experience.”

Inexperience aside, the growing public hostility between Trump and members of his own party has Hill veterans flummoxed. In particular, they point to Trump’s Twitter tirades against members of the Freedom Caucus—many of whom are more popular in their districts than the president, and largely immune to threats of a primary challenge.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Stan Collender, a former top staffer on the House and Senate Budget Committees, who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “He’s attacking a group he is desperately going to need in the future, and they’re probably the least politically vulnerable members of his party.”

Collender said Trump should have invested several months in getting to know the members of Congress that his legislative agenda depends on before twisting their arms for votes on an extremely unpopular Obamacare repeal bill and then publicly shaming them for not falling in line.

“He’s thinking of them as underlings and he’s the CEO,” he said. “But he’s not Congress’ CEO, he’s the president of the United States. They don’t work for him, they work for their constituents.”

Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2003, told TPM he believes Trump’s attack on the Freedom Caucus will “backfire.”

“It’s important to remember to build bridges, seek alliances, look for common ground,” he said. “You don’t just try to win today, you try to build trust and friendship for tomorrow. Today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s ally. So you don’t want to cut off somebody who voted against you on health care from voting with you on tax reform.”

Health care debacle

Trump’s only major legislative push so far—a Frankenstein of a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act stitched together in a few weeks with provisions aimed at appeasing hardline conservatives and moderate Republicans—went down in flames, pulled minutes before a scheduled vote due to lack of support.

The dust had hardly settled before the finger-pointing began, with all parties desperately trying to shift the blame onto one another.

Though current members of Congress were hesitant to blame President Trump, former members told TPM he repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to ensure the bill’s success.

“He probably should have done more homework on the health care bill, because it’s such a complicated issue,” said Stearns. “I don’t know if the president actually read the bill. And you have to have an understanding of the content and the nuances that are creating problems. That’s where you have to work to develop a consensus.”

Stearns also noted that Trump never made a serious effort to explain the bill to the American public and win over their support. In speeches in the weeks leading up to the House’s non-vote on the health care bill, Trump barely mentioned it, and when he did, he characterized it as a chore he needed to take care of before moving on to other topics.

“The president never went on TV to go into detail about the bill and sell it,” he said. “Sometimes you have to galvanize the public, and then the public goes to pressure their members of Congress. President Reagan did that well. When he ran into a logjam in Congress, he would go on TV and get the public behind him.”

Running aground

Even setting aside from the relationship with Congress, the Trump presidency is setting new standards for dysfunction.

Thousands of government positions sit vacant. Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor withdrew after damaging media reports about his past, and his picks to lead the Army and the Navy withdrew over financial entanglements. His fired national security adviser is seeking immunity to testify after reports surfaced that he inappropriately discussed sanctions with the Russian government – then misled the vice president about it. Several other members of his campaign are under investigation for their ties to Russia. The leader of the FBI publicly confirmed that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s prospects and damage Hillary Clinton’s, and the agency is now looking into whether there was “coordination” between Putin’s government and the Trump campaign.

One of his signature policies—an executive order to ban immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries—has been repeatedly blocked by several federal judges, some of them Republican appointees, who called it unjustified and discriminatory.

In less than two months, Trump has managed to spark feuds with the leaders of several ally nations, including Germany, Mexico, Australia, Sweden, and France.

Meanwhile, White House staff continue to leak damaging information about their bosses to the press on a near-daily basis—detailing everything from Trump’s cable news addiction to his anger at reports more people attended the Women’s March on Washington than his inauguration. Even news of an effort by the White House press secretary to stamp out leaks was leaked.

After leveling bogus accusations that former President Obama wiretapped his phone, Trump has spent weeks muddying the waters on what exactly he meant by “wiretapped.” Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that is supposed to be investigating the Russia-Trump connection has rushed to his defense. The ensuing Washington drama has involved secret White House visits, cryptic press conferences, and a slow drip of increasingly damning revelations.

“I’ve been here since the 70s, and I’ve never seen anything deteriorate quite this quickly,” said Collender. “I was around when Watergate was happening and things went south very fast at that point. He was losing Republican support, he didn’t have much Democratic support to begin with, and the ability of the White House to get anything through Congress at that point was zero. But that took four or five years to happen, as opposed to 65 days.”

So what does this mean for the months ahead?

Trump and congressional leaders have vowed to turn their attention to an overhaul of the tax code, but based on the debacle of the last few weeks, many are deeply skeptical of their prospects.

“No one I know thinks they’ll get tax reform done by August like the administration has been saying,” Collender said. “Washington just doesn’t work that way. Tax reform is going to be every bit as controversial as health care with as many winners and losers.”

Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, took a similarly dim view of the battles ahead.

“There isn’t much in the way of a promising agenda,” he told TPM. “Their tax promises don’t add up. The parts that might generate revenues to offset the deep cuts for the wealthy are hotly opposed by Republican constituencies. I think they have a big mess on their hands. So that that’s not an obviously follow-up.”

“Then there’s infrastructure, where there is at least a possibility of getting something,” he continued. “But Republicans don’t want to pay for a big infrastructure project. Many of them are against it as a whole. So I think you’re seeing this desperate effort to shame Republicans and pressure them into reconsidering their vote [on health care] reflects a realization that there’s nothing more promising to turn to.”

Faced with the prospect of a Congress unable to pass any ambitious legislation, Mann sees a bleak future ahead.

“My worry it what it might prompt Trump to do on his own,” he said. “It might get his more authoritarian juices flowing, and he might use this as an excuse for expanding executive power.”

Collander has had equally dark thoughts.

“In the absence of a crisis, I don’t see this getting better anytime soon,” he said. “What typically happens is that you have terrorism attack or a natural disaster or a war, and it brings everyone together, at least for a short period of time. The problem is that we have crisis fatigue in this country. Since 9/11 we’ve had terrorism crises, economic crises, housing crises, market crashes. I wonder in the current environment how big a crisis would it take to bring people to the table together. I’m not sure I want to find out.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.
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