Donald Trump and the GOP’s Message Problem

Beyond just saying controversial things, the White House front-runner is preventing Hill Republicans from getting any attention for their own agenda.

House Speaker Paul Ryan confers with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy before a news conference on Tuesday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
March 2, 2016, 8:09 p.m.

When House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed that 2016 would be a “year of ideas” from House Republicans, he probably didn’t count on having to emphasize this one: The GOP flatly rejects white supremacists.

But this week’s condemnation by House and Senate GOP leaders of Donald Trump’s apparent hedging on former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is only the most striking instance of a larger trend.

The front-running Trump’s dominance of the political news cycle, his way-out-there policy stances (such as barring all Muslims from entering the U.S.), and routinely controversial statements are creating hurdles for Capitol Hill Republicans trying to present their own agenda to the public.

“I am tired of talking about Donald Trump,” Sen. Susan Collins told National Journal.

“We are trying to get our work done. We have a very important opiate bill on the floor which addresses a real crisis. There are no stories about it in the press because the press is all Trump, all the time,” said Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.

“We are doing appropriations hearings. We had our Navy come and present its budget this morning. That’s usually a hearing that would get a lot of attention,” she said.

The Trump campaign, which is roiling the GOP establishment and the conservative movement alike, represents an especially stark version of what lawmakers note is a regular event.

“It’s always hard for the House to cut through during a presidential year. And that doesn’t have much to do with the candidates. It’s just that the focus of the country is on who the next president is going to be,” said Rep. Tom Cole. “I don’t think anything that Mr. Trump has done or not done has complicated our jobs. We just need to get our work done.”

Yet Trump presents special challenges for his party’s congressional wing now and even more so if he becomes the nominee, beyond the much-discussed concern that he could drag down vulnerable Republicans like Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

One is that the dust Trump kicks up with his bombastic style and frequent aversion to policy details makes it tougher for Republicans to break through with ideas, even when they can come to agreement (and the House GOP’s struggles to unify on a budget plan show how hard that can be on its own).

Another is the prospect of confrontation over agendas with a candidate who’s not shy about breaking with GOP orthodoxy and taking positions that have Republicans running for cover.

Trump’s effusive praise for the non-abortion-related work of Planned Parenthood, his pro-deportation immigration plans, controversial stance on Muslims, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, muddled message on Obamacare, mixed signals on Israel and the Iran nuclear deal, and most recently, his comments on Duke (which he has since disavowed) could put him on a collision course with House Republicans more broadly.

Ryan has created six task forces on security, poverty, taxes, and other issues that plan to unveil a broad House GOP agenda in the coming weeks. It’s designed to inject an affirmative agenda into the election and a contrast with Democrats in the White House contest and down-ballot races.

“He wants to influence the election to give the American people a choice,” a GOP leadership aide said. “[Ryan] really wants to get a jump-start on this, so we are not waiting for the fall to make this case to the American people.” 

But whether that agenda will find a willing audience in Trump, should he capture the nomination, remains to be seen.

“We need to define ourselves with an agenda, and I am hopeful that whoever the nominee may be, and this Congress, will subscribe to the same agenda and get behind it,” said Rep. Dennis Ross.

And if that nominee is Trump?

“I think that at some point when it becomes evident that he is going to be the nominee, I think that is when the House leadership under Speaker Ryan, and Trump, if that’s who the nominee is, sit down and start working on an agenda,” Ross said.

Such plans may already be in motion. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, told news outlets on Wednesday that Trump’s campaign had reached out to Ryan and that the speaker planned to talk policy with all the GOP White House hopefuls.

“We expect the speaker to be in touch with all the remaining candidates soon to discuss our efforts to build a bold conservative policy agenda for 2017,” Buck said.

It’s unclear how much Trump and Ryan can bond on politics and policy. Trump, after winning seven primaries on Super Tuesday, extended both an olive branch and a warning to Ryan.  

“Paul Ryan—I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him,” Trump said, but added: “And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.”

A number of lawmakers have clearly chafed at Trump’s profile.

“Those of you in the media have helped Mr. Trump become the bright, shiny political object that he has become,” said Rep. Trent Franks, who hopes Trump can be bested in the GOP race.

Still, one Republican backing Marco Rubio said Trump’s profile could be a good thing for the House GOP’s effort to craft an election-year policy agenda. “Because he is taking up all the oxygen in the room, people are not looking at Congress and how much they hate us and how dissatisfied they are with the legislative branch, even though we are a divided government,” said Rep. Tom Rooney.

“I think it has actually given Paul some room to be able to make the relationships with the Freedom Caucus guys and with everybody else to sort of establish … the policies he wants to lay out for the rest of the year,” Rooney said.

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