Trump's unwinnable war with the Republican Congress

The president can only ever lose this fight. Here's why.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Jim Lo Scalzo - Pool/Getty Images)

"We're not getting the job done," President Trump said Monday when asked about the project his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon is embarking on to unseat nearly every Republican incumbent senator running for re-election. "And I'm not going to blame myself. I'll be honest: They are not getting the job done."

I know you're shocked to hear that Trump will not be blaming himself for the GOP's failure to pass any significant legislation nine months into his presidency. But it's still remarkable to hear a president attacking his own party's legislators, particularly when a year from now they'll be up for re-election, and his own fate is so directly tied to whether they hold their majorities in Congress.

You could argue that Trump has reason to be dissatisfied. After all, congressional Republicans were unable to deliver on their most oft-repeated promise, repealing the Affordable Care Act, mostly because for seven years they never bothered to think through how they might go about it and what the political fallout would be if they threatened to take health coverage away from tens of millions of people. Trump didn't help matters by repeatedly making promises his party had no intention of keeping, but if they had gotten their act together and passed something, he would certainly have signed it.

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But right at the moment, we're seeing how the limitations of Trump's political vision are feeding his own problems, and could lead to the biggest problem of all: Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress. He's going to keep criticizing his fellow Republicans, producing a cycle of distrust and resentment that will hurt them and him.

It's odd that even at this point, the president doesn't seem to grasp that every politician has his or her own complex set of interests that govern the decisions they make. They have ideological beliefs, but they also have idiosyncratic districts they represent, donors to satisfy, and worries about both primary and general election campaigns. One of the ways Trump has revealed that he knows nothing about political dealmaking is his lack of interest in learning what might motivate members of Congress and how to understand their perspectives.

Instead, his calculation is simple: If you're coming through for Donald Trump, you're a tremendous person, top-notch, the best. If you aren't coming through, or if (heaven forfend) you utter a word of criticism about him, you're worthless.

If he took a longer view, he might realize that whenever a president's approval ratings are weak (as his are), he can expect that some members of his party will try to signal their independence to the voters back home, maybe even criticizing a decision or a statement he makes. Nearly every president experiences it at one time or another. The rest of them understand it for what it is even if they don't like it, so they take it in stride and don't start public spats with the offenders. Trump has no such restraint.

It seems that what's important to him now is that somebody else take the blame for whatever goes wrong, and many Republican voters will take his side. Already, the conflict is apparent; a recent CBS News poll "found 39 percent of Republicans feel their party's congressional representatives 'don't like' the president and are actively trying to undermine him, while another 37 percent think congressional Republicans don't like Trump 'but pretend to' in order to try to get their agenda passed."

Trump may not realize it, but when he has conflicts with congressional Republicans and he convinces most of his base to take his side, he actually ends up losing. That's because the worse those conflicts get, the less likely loyal Trump voters are to turn out to vote in 2018 for those members whom he's feuding with. That increases the chances that Democrats take back the House or Senate (or both). And if they manage that, Trump's presidency will turn into a nightmare of subpoenas, investigations, iron gridlock, and maybe even impeachment.

There is one thing that might repair this relationship, at least for a short while: Congress managing to pass a tax cut. Trump won't care what's in it — it has become clear that he is completely unfamiliar with the proposal his own White House released — and Republicans in Congress only care that it cuts taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Then they can have a Rose Garden ceremony and act as though prosperity and happiness for all Americans have been guaranteed for generations to come.

But if it fails? Then the real sniping will begin, from all quarters. As one Washington Post journalist recently reported from a meeting of the superdonors in the Koch network (who weren't particularly supportive of Trump last year), "It was striking how little criticism there was of Trump, but the anger directed toward moderate Republicans in the Senate was palpable." Vice President Pence spoke to the group of billionaires and multimillionaires, telling them that "cutting taxes is the single-most important policy for the future of America," a sentiment that no doubt warmed them down to the gold-plated cockles of their hearts. If Congress can't get it done, the wrath of the plutocrats will be unforgiving.

Neither will Trump's, as a blizzard of angry denunciations and resentful tweets will be launched from the White House toward the Capitol, every one making it just a little less likely that Republicans will hold on to their total control of government.

A smarter president would realize that even if you're displeased, lashing out sometimes does your own political fortunes much more harm than good. But not this one.

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