Politics & Policy

The One Sentence That Explains Washington Dysfunction

President-elect Trump arrives for his inauguration, January 20, 2017. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The political class never expected Donald Trump to become president.

The other day Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania explained why Republicans are having such trouble with health care. Speaking at a town hall during the July 4 recess, Toomey said, “I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win. I think most of my colleagues didn’t. So we didn’t expect to be in this situation.”

No kidding. I too can report that, from June 16, 2015, to November 8, 2016, the feeling among the elected officials, party functionaries, consultants, strategists, and journalists in our nation’s capital was that Donald J. Trump stood no chance of becoming president of the United States. And because the political elite held this view with such self-assurance, with all the egotism and snobbery and moral puffery and snarkiness that distinguishes itself as a class, it did not spend more than a second, if that, thinking through the possible consequences of a Trump victory.

Among those consequences: The expectation that Republicans might actually try to keep the promises they’ve made to voters over the last eight years.

Paul Ryan’s well-intentioned but superfluous “Better Way” agenda notwithstanding, Republicans and D.C. conservatives were far too taken with the spectacle of the campaign, and with brooding over the ramifications of their coming defeat, than in building coalitions for policies that both Congress and the party’s eventual nominee might support. How to bridge the divide between conservatives and the nation-state populists driving the Trump movement was a subject that rarely came up before Election Day.

Congressmen in particular — obsessed with self-preservation, wedded to pet issues and special interests, enraptured by self-mythology — weren’t interested in acknowledging the force of, or adapting to, the Trump candidacy. One day last October, for example, I tried to explain to a GOP official that it increasingly does not matter where one stands on the spectrum of left and right, what matters is whose side one is on. The official just smiled politely and ignored me.

They didn’t think Trump could, or would, or should win, and so they dropped the health care and tax policy ball. Nor did the president’s mutability help things. It wasn’t clear whether Trump wanted full repeal of Obamacare with a replacement to come later, or repeal-and-replace with no gap, as he told 60 Minutes in November, or which taxes and regulations he wanted to keep, or how much he wanted to reform Medicaid. What matters to this president is the accomplishment, the signing ceremony, the trophy, the result. How he gets there, the details of legislation, are less important to him. That’s what he has Congress for.

A corollary to the widespread belief that Trump would lose was that criticizing him had no cost. Trump might have moved into first place in the national polling within a month of declaring his candidacy, he might have held that position throughout the entire primary with the brief exception of a few days in November 2015, but he was, to say the least, no ordinary frontrunner. Typically, party flacks shy away from offending frontrunners, lest they risk jobs in a possible administration. The party thus presents something like a united front, even if the primary is contested. Think of the Democrats in 2016.

But the Republicans last year were different. Trump was overthrowing both the party and conservative movement establishments, violating norms of discourse and behavior, altering the ideological composition of the GOP, and thriving amidst chaos, polarization, and conflict. Not only did he invite rebuke, he loved it, for it gave him the opportunity to separate himself from the Republican party of the Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney. And since the operative assumption was that he would in no circumstances become president, GOP stalwarts zinged him with abandon, knowing they were not giving up the chance to be, say, assistant secretary for consular affairs.

Well, joke’s on us, because not only did Trump become president, he knows how to hold a grudge. The result is an understaffed administration. Cabinet agencies send the names of potential bureaucrats to the White House, and the names are rejected if they attacked or mocked the president on social media during the campaign. This is within Trump’s rights, of course. I wouldn’t hire someone who disliked me, either. (Let that be a warning to aspiring journalists.) My point is he would have a much larger talent pool to draw from had more people thought he was going to win.

“Donald Trump Faltering? Die-Hard Fans Refuse to Buy It,” read the headline of a particularly condescending New York Times report from Pennsylvania last October. “In the campaign’s last weeks,” wrote the Times, “at such rallies, Mr. Trump is sealed in a hermetic bubble with his most fervent supporters. They are people passionate enough to wait hours to attend a rally where the candidate and the crowds draw energy and affirmation from each other, while dismissing any discouraging information.” The rubes.

Turns out, there’s another hermetic bubble, one that stretches from West Forty-Third Street in Manhattan to the corner of Seventeenth and I streets in D.C. It didn’t expect Donald Trump to win, it dismissed any discouraging information to the contrary, and it did not, in the words of Pat Toomey, “expect to be in this situation.” And if we didn’t expect to be where we are today, how on Earth can we know where we’ll be tomorrow?


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— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2017 All rights reserved

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