Are Trump's failures the GOP's gain?
It's turning out to be another awful week for President Trump.
The trade deficit has ballooned to a record $891 billion. Border crossings by unauthorized immigrants have reached an 11-year high. And North Korea, fresh off last week's aborted summit in Vietnam, has started rebuilding a key nuclear facility.
It's easy to take potshots at this particular president — every week seems to be an awful week for his administration — but what's happening right now is novel: By Trump's own standards, judged against the promises he made on the campaign trail in 2016, the latest developments signify that his presidency is failing. People are noticing.
So much for "I alone can fix it," huh?
Here's the curious thing about Trump's growing list of setbacks, though: They offer the GOP establishment a pathway to salvage the party's post-Trump future. As counterintuitive as it might sound, Trump's failures may be paving the way for Republicans' future electoral success.
Understand: To the extent that Trumpism has an agenda — a reason to exist beyond the president's grifting, grievance-mongering, and self-aggrandizement — his policies center on trade, immigration, and a semi-isolationist unilateralism that wants to enjoy the benefits of American leadership on the world stage without having to bear the costs.
Trump's failures on each of those fronts are well-documented — the toll his trade wars have taken on farmers, his inability to get Mexico to pay for his border wall, even his reversal on ending America's involvement in Syria. On the things he says he cares most about, Trump and his administration have been, at best, ineffective.
The administration, however, has been effective in achieving some goals. There have been massive tax cuts for the rich. The federal judiciary is being remade into a bastion of conservatism. And the federal government under Trump is cutting regulations at a record pace.
Not coincidentally, those are three areas where Trump's agenda overlaps with that of the GOP establishment. The areas where he's losing? Not so much.
On one hand, Trump is bad at being president in seemingly every way it's possible to be bad: We get new stories of his personal corruption every week — the latest story involves a possible insurance scam. His ideas seem to be bad, and as noted here, his ability turn his ideas into successful policy seems scattershot at best. Trump is so bad, you would understand if his party was damaged for a generation or more.
Then again, we thought the same thing when George W. Bush exited the presidency in 2009 with a legacy of widening deficits, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the Great Recession trailing him closely.
The GOP's response to the disaster of the Bush years was, basically, to throw the former president under the bus. Within months of President Obama's election, the Tea Party had formed and Republicans who had spent the previous eight years helping whittle the budget from a surplus to deficit suddenly found themselves called to fiscal rectitude. Congressman Paul Ryan, who would go on to be speaker of the House, was foremost in this ranks — telling The New Yorker in 2012 that, yes, he had voted for Bush's budget-busting priorities, but that he'd learned his lesson. As a fiscal conservative, he said, he was determined "to do everything I can to make sure I don't feel that misery again."
In 2010, less than two years after Bush left office ignominiously, Republicans retook the House of Representatives. They'd successfully made the case that their problem under Bush was that they had departed from party orthodoxy and promised that next time they'd do better.
Now: This should be one of those "fool me twice, shame on me" situations, but the real lesson of the Bush administration and its aftermath is this: The electorate has a short memory.
It's all too easy to see future Republicans saying that the problem of the Trump administration is that he departed from party orthodoxy on free trade and international hawkishness and making the case he was more successful when he stuck closely to the GOP's traditional positions. They'll swear they've learned their lesson this time. It is also easy to see them to be rewarded for doing so, no matter how enthusiastically they've supported Trump while he's in office.
Trump's presidency is failing. Last week was a disaster. So is this week. Expect next week to be bad, too. The end of this administration can't come soon enough. Democrats will be able to take advantage if they aren't consumed by their own divisions. Republicans are stuck with him for now, but that won't always be the case — if they're smart, they're preparing for the future, too.