Politics & Policy

Managing President Trump

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Congressional Republicans keep the most important bargaining chip: the power to say no.

Single-party government does not have a great record in these United States.

(But then neither does divided government, or government.)

Unitary Republican rule during the George W. Bush administration produced some fiascos: fiscal incontinence, the batty plan to put Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court, a general atmosphere of non-accountability that contributed to various scandals of the period. Indeed, conservative ire over Republican shenanigans of that era, later supercharged by the bailouts, was a main force in creating the Tea Party movement, which, it bears keeping in mind, sought an alternative not to Democratic leadership but to Republican leadership as it was then being practiced. The search for an alternative continued, and finally lighted upon the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, now president-elect.

Democratic single-party rule has an awful record, too, from the New Deal to the Kennedy-Johnson years to the Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate that delivered to the American people catastrophic deficits, wasteful stimulus programs based on the phantom of “shovel ready” federal projects, and a catastrophically incompetent attempt at health-insurance reform that has, with a bit of help from the charm and integrity of Hillary Rodham Clinton, just reduced the Democratic party to its lowest state since Reconstruction.

Which brings us back to single-party Republican rule.

Well, “Republican” . . .

President-elect Trump is in the Republican party, but not of it. He is, in fact, a lifelong Democrat whose populist tendencies and opportunism led to explorations of the Reform party and other outlets before he discerned that the GOP could be the most convenient vehicle for his ambitions, in spite of his longtime support for its adversaries. President Trump will have as one of his main adversaries Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a longtime beneficiary of the generous largesse Trump has doled out to Democrats over the years. (Trump assures us that this is nothing to worry about, that it is not an expression of his true beliefs but only evidence of petty corruption of the sort that makes doing business easier. That’s a relief.) It will be an uneasy marriage.

But if Trump is not quite of the Republican party, Trumpism is. It represents an ancient illiberal tendency that has for the most part found a home on the right side of the political spectrum, though it, like Trump, is opportunistic: It was the Buchanan movement in the GOP and it was the Perot movement outside the GOP and it was the Wallace movement in the Democratic party. It is driven by resentment, fear, and bad economics, which makes it two-thirds at home in the Republican party. It is, for the moment, the tendency of Sean Hannity (an immigration-amnesty man the day before yesterday) and Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. And, of course, that of the man who soon will be in the White House.

Even without accounting for the scandals of the period, congressional Republicans did not cover themselves with glory during the Bush years, not despite their holding tremendous power but because of it. They never quite learned how to manage the president, a cuddly, kinder and gentler education reformer and national-building skeptic whose politics were restructured by the events of September 11, 2001. They did not learn how to manage themselves, either, or their adversaries in Congress. Despite all the talk of Tom “The Hammer” DeLay and iron party discipline, Republicans mainly attempted to finesse away the political disputes of the post-9/11 era by giving everyone everything they wanted as near they could. Democrats got their spending, congressional Republicans got their spending, and the president got his spending. Everybody got popular tax cuts, and the interaction of spending and tax-cutting produced significant deficits and a problematic long-term fiscal trajectory. Bush attempted to do something about that with his proposals for Social Security reform, which had practically every elected Republican in Washington, including many so-called conservatives, walking sideways away from him.

The president can unilaterally muck up NAFTA and other trade agreements, but if he wants a real, long-term shift in trade policy, he is going to need Congress.

We still need to reform entitlement spending. President-elect Trump does not want to do that.

But Trump does want to do some useful things. Some of those he can do on his own, but most of them will require congressional action. For example, the president can unilaterally muck up NAFTA and other trade agreements, and he can do a great deal to reorient our military posture. But if he wants a real, long-term shift in trade policy, he is going to need Congress. If he wants real immigration reform, he is going to need Congress. If he wants real tax reform, he is going to need Congress.

And, if he wants to do anything other than sit on his thumb while the Democrats try to figure out how to graft Bernie Sanders’s nationalism-socialism onto a candidate under 143 years of age, he is going to need a Republican Congress. Dwight Eisenhower breathed a sigh of relief when the Republicans lost the Senate — he was barely a Republican himself at all and had no interest in fighting with the nascent conservative movement that was rising within the GOP. But Trump will have nothing like that luxury. His choice is going to be between Republicans who hate him a little and want something from him and Democrats who hate him a great deal and would not vote for a congressional endorsement of motherhood and apple pie if it came from Donald Trump.

Trump fancies himself a great negotiator. Republicans are going to have to brush up on that, keeping in mind two principles. The first is that the real power in any relationship belongs to the party most willing to walk away from it. The second is that you always make sure you actually have what you want in hand before you hand over what you’re offering in trade. That second principle is going to be essential in dealing with Trump, who is not known for keeping his word or for even being embarrassed about breaking it, viewing honor as a poor negotiating tactic.

Trump wants an infrastructure-stimulus program. Congressional Republicans should get corporate tax reform and regulatory relief out of him before they write the check for that, which is going to be a big one. He wants immigration reform and cannot do it without Congress. Congressional Republicans should get, at the least, a brake on the growth of entitlement-benefit spending before they authorize breaking ground on any walls. Everyone wants Obamacare repealed; Republicans should make sure their alternative is signed into law with that repeal. If there is one thing about which Donald Trump has been consistent, it is that no one — not business partners, not wives, not political allies — can take him at his word.

Trump’s victory should be appreciated for what it is — but for no more than that. Republicans controlled Congress, the majority of governorships, and the majority of state legislatures before he came along. The nature of the presidency may make Trump the negotiating partner with the upper hand in many of these negotiations, but congressional Republicans keep the most important bargaining chip there is: The power to say no. They didn’t say no enough in the Bush years, but they got better at it during the Obama era. (Goodbye, Merrick Garland.) They should be ready to keep it up.

Just because we have one-party government doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same side.

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