Politics & Policy

Trump the Irresolute

(Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
He prides himself on his negotiating skill, but there’s little evidence of it so far.

President Trump’s entire career has been built on one foundational myth: that he is tougher than his competitors. Trump positions himself as a knife fighter more than willing to wield the weapon. He’s a brutal negotiator, he says, a man who won’t be bested by competitors. His catch phrase: “You’re fired.” His hard elbows are just part and parcel of his quest for victory, he says.

But what if President Trump isn’t that tough?

The normal tough guy doesn’t care too much what people think about him. But what if President Trump is deeply concerned with what people think — consumed with it? What if he wants to be liked? What if he enjoys watching conflict among others, but hates being blamed for it?

What if Trump isn’t willing to take a hit for the sake of his agenda?

Trump came into office on the backs of two central promises: repealing Obamacare, and a full-scale revocation of President Obama’s executive amnesty. He’s already failed at the first. Now, the most likely outcome seems to be either an actual enshrinement of President Obama’s executive amnesty in a law passed by Congress and signed by Trump himself, or a continuation of Obama’s informal policy with regard to DACA — the use of prosecutorial discretion to avoid enforcement of the law.

It’s easy and correct to blame Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) here. Both of them have the capacity to whip the votes for major legislation. That, after all, is the model for legislation in the Constitution: not law created by the executive and implemented by the legislature, but the other way around. But both Ryan and McConnell are products of a system that makes the legislature more akin to a parliament working within a constitutional monarchy than a branch deemed to be first among equals. The president is now expected to take the lead on major legislation.

What’s more, the president must take the lead when his own party is split. President Obama took a central role in crafting Obamacare, attempting to unite the single-payer fans in his party with the more market-friendly elements. President George W. Bush did the same in pressing forward his No Child Left Behind Act and his Medicare Part D expansion.

The Republican party is clearly split on DACA: Some Republicans opposed Obama’s executive amnesty on the grounds that it was created unconstitutionally; others opposed it on the grounds that no group of illegal immigrants should be granted blanket amnesty. Normally, the president would craft a policy based on his own position, then attempt to cobble together support. If the president wanted a legislative cementing for DACA, he’d make that clear to the right wing of his party, offer them sweeteners in the form of something like a border wall, and threaten consequences if they disobeyed him. Instead, Trump is trying to play both sides: He’s trying to signal that he’s tough on immigration to his base, but he’s simultaneously signaling that he wants to allow the DREAMers to remain in the country.

Trump is trying to signal that he’s tough on immigration to his base, but he’s simultaneously signaling that he wants to let the DREAMers remain in the country.

The result: Congressional Republicans don’t know which way to jump. If they trade DACA for a border wall, they can’t be sure Trump won’t smash them publicly for caving on DACA; if they don’t, they can’t be sure Trump won’t smash them for failing to protect DREAMers. Trump’s own vague position means that Congress can’t feel safe taking a strong position.

This means that Trump’s latest attempt to kick the can to Congress will end up backfiring if Congress fails to act. Then Trump either will be left attempting to appease his base by actually killing DACA in six months, or he’ll be forced to personally stamp DACA with his own imprimatur.

Trump ran for office as a brute. That was his appeal. But the only brutal thing Trump has done thus far is to refuse to take hard and fast positions and demand that Congress fill the gap. That’s brutal because in 2018, Congress will be up for reelection; Trump won’t. If he loses the House, the Democrats will quickly move to impeach him. Then his biggest problem won’t be a Congress that refuses to fill in the blanks, but a Congress dedicated to Trump’s personal defeat.

In politics, failure to take strong stands — unwillingness to play bad cop — doesn’t end with politicians escaping blame. Trump’s about to learn that lesson the hard way. And he’ll continue learning that lesson until he finds himself isolated. Few people are willing to stand by those who won’t stand up for their cherished beliefs, and a personal desire to escape blame rarely ends with the achievement of that aspiration.


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— Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief of the DailyWire.com.

Mr. Shapiro is the host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, the editor emeritus of The Daily Wire, and the author of How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps and The Right Side of History.


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