The Ever-Shrinking Trump Presidency

The president’s ineffective threats against the Freedom Caucus show that he wields little clout, just two months into his term.

Vice President Mike Pence tries to stop President Trump as he leaves before signing executive orders regarding trade in the Oval Office on Friday. Trump left the room without signing the executive orders.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
April 2, 2017, 6 a.m.

In the af­ter­glow of Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, it looked as if the in­com­ing pres­id­ent’s abid­ing pop­ular­ity with his base would co­opt in­transigent House con­ser­vat­ives, once and for all. In Novem­ber, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy pre­dicted a brand-new dy­nam­ic for House Re­pub­lic­ans, say­ing “it would be hard” for House Free­dom Caucus mem­bers to stand up to the new GOP ad­min­is­tra­tion. In my postelec­tion in­ter­view with Her­it­age Ac­tion chief Mi­chael Need­ham, the anti­es­tab­lish­ment ringlead­er signaled that his group was eager to work with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in or­der to se­cure polit­ic­al vic­tor­ies. House Speak­er Paul Ry­an’s con­fid­ence about passing a health care over­haul res­ted on the as­sump­tion that Trump’s sup­port from the base would con­vince enough Free­dom Caucus mem­bers to vote for a le­gis­lat­ive com­prom­ise.

Now, those dreams of Re­pub­lic­an unity are shattered. Pre­dict­ably, swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans have kept their dis­tance, thanks to Trump’s sag­ging ap­prov­al rat­ings. Less pre­dict­ably, a grow­ing num­ber of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are rais­ing ques­tions about the pres­id­ent’s ties to Rus­sia. Most con­sequen­tially, the Free­dom Caucus mem­bers who rep­res­ent many loy­al Trump voters in their dis­tricts have openly un­der­mined the lead­er of their party. Not even the lob­by­ing of a former stal­wart mem­ber like Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget Dir­ect­or Mick Mul­vaney could per­suade any of them to com­prom­ise their prin­ciples.

The Re­pub­lic­an Party is now split in­to three fac­tions—prag­mat­ists, Trumpi­an pop­u­lists, and hard-right max­im­al­ists un­will­ing to make the com­prom­ises ne­ces­sary to gov­ern ef­fect­ively. As pres­id­ent, Trump could have been the glue hold­ing the party’s war­ring groups to­geth­er, by em­bra­cing ele­ments of con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy while for­cing con­ces­sions on oth­er is­sues im­port­ant to him. But Trump has little in­terest in the art of gov­ern­ing; he craves per­son­ally-ful­filling polit­ic­al vic­tor­ies. Per­haps if the pres­id­ent had fo­cused more on selling health care re­form or bet­ter un­der­stood the de­tails of the le­gis­la­tion, the con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers would have felt more pres­sure to play team ball. In­stead, they now hold out­sized lever­age after scut­tling a long-stand­ing party pri­or­ity.

What’s sur­pris­ing is that Trump pub­licly turned on his one­time al­lies on Twit­ter. “The Free­dom Caucus will hurt the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them… in 2018,” he wrote. Even as many of his sup­port­ers were in­clined to lay blame for the bill’s fail­ure on Ry­an, Trump picked a fight with his base—and he’s los­ing. His threat to ne­go­ti­ate with Demo­crats also fell on deaf ears. Sev­er­al Caucus Group mem­bers re­spon­ded by us­ing his cam­paign rhet­or­ic against him, ar­guing the pres­id­ent is sink­ing in the very swamp he vowed to drain. New na­tion­al polls show Trump los­ing a little sup­port from the GOP base, which is a prob­lem giv­en his rock-bot­tom rat­ings with per­suad­able voters. Trump now needs the Free­dom Caucus more than it needs him.

This is what hap­pens when a pres­id­ent faces sag­ging ap­prov­al rat­ings, low staff mor­ale, and the shad­ow of scan­dal only two months in­to his ad­min­is­tra­tion. When a pres­id­ent can’t even pres­sure his core sup­port­ers, it’s a clear sign that his pres­id­ency is shrink­ing in the pub­lic’s eyes.


1. With this month’s Geor­gia spe­cial elec­tion look­ing un­ex­pec­tedly close, it’s worth set­ting a mark­er for the type of seats House Demo­crats would need to win to have a shot at gain­ing the ma­jor­ity. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price’s old dis­trict was (un­til re­cently) solidly Re­pub­lic­an. It’s demo­graph­ic­ally di­verse and more af­flu­ent than av­er­age. Its Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port par­tis­an vot­ing in­dex was R+14 be­fore last year’s elec­tion; Trump won it by only 2 points in 2016. This is the kind of seat Demo­crats need to win in 2018.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans who rep­res­ent sim­il­ar seats: Reps. Rod­ney Frel­inghuysen of New Jer­sey, John Cul­ber­son of Texas, Mimi Wal­ters and Dana Rohra­bach­er of Cali­for­nia, Peter Roskam of Illinois, and Kev­in Yo­der of Kan­sas. These mem­bers routinely coast to reelec­tion, but they are run­ning in dis­tricts that swung to­ward Hil­lary Clin­ton in the pres­id­en­tial race. If House Demo­crats can im­prove their re­cruit­ing in these dis­tricts—and a Demo­crat­ic up­set in Geor­gia would be a power­ful in­cent­ive for their can­did­ates to run—it will be an­oth­er sign the House is very much in play for 2018.

2. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas an­nounced his Sen­ate can­did­acy this week, a long-shot bid against Sen. Ted Cruz. Even though Cruz’s pop­ular­ity is down, it’s hard to see him ser­i­ously threatened by a little known Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man who will need tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to com­pete. This, in a cycle when his party will be squarely fo­cused on de­fend­ing the many red-state Demo­crats up for reelec­tion—and not eager to in­vest a for­tune on a long-shot race in a safely Re­pub­lic­an state.

O’Rourke has forged a low-key pro­file since up­set­ting former In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sil­vestre Reyes in a 2012 primary. He’s sworn off con­sult­ants for this cam­paign, rep­res­ents only a small slice of the Lone Star State (El Paso), and doesn’t have the big-money con­nec­tions to raise the funds ne­ces­sary for a statewide race. Texas may be be­com­ing more polit­ic­ally com­pet­it­ive—Trump car­ried it by only 9 points—but it would take an epic Cruz col­lapse for Demo­crats to make the race in­ter­est­ing.

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