OFF TO THE RACES

No Easy Wins for GOP Lawmakers Under Trump

With the president failing to lead, and with Democrats opposing everything, it’s hard to get anything done.

President Trump hands a pen to Sen. Ted Cruz after signing a decision memo and a letter to members of Congress outlining the principles of his plan to privatize the nation's air-traffic-control system, in the East Room at the White House on June 5.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

For con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans in the new norm of the Trump pres­id­ency, noth­ing is easy, and everything is hard. Rais­ing the debt ceil­ing in or­der to keep the gov­ern­ment from de­fault­ing on its debt is nor­mally easy; now it is hard. Passing an om­ni­bus budget bill to simply keep the gov­ern­ment op­er­at­ing (for­get the idea of passing the full bat­tery of 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills) is go­ing to be hard. Com­ing up with a health care bill in the Sen­ate that could be passed by a simple ma­jor­ity through the budget-re­con­cili­ation pro­cess usu­ally would be easy with a 52-48 vote edge and a vice pres­id­ent in place to break a tie. But this time, it will be hard. Spend­ing money to fix our na­tion’s in­creas­ingly dilap­id­ated in­fra­struc­ture—that’s hard too. And then there are things that would be hard un­der any set of cir­cum­stances, such as tax re­form. That’s even harder.

Part of the dif­fi­culty has noth­ing to do with Pres­id­ent Trump. The Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies in the House (55 per­cent to 45 per­cent) and Sen­ate are re­l­at­ively thin, and the House and Sen­ate GOP con­fer­ences are any­thing but mono­lith­ic. Each has mem­bers that span the polit­ic­al spec­trum, from those who are some­what con­ser­vat­ive and may need the votes of in­de­pend­ents and maybe even a few Demo­crats to win reelec­tion, all the way to mem­bers who are to the right of Genghis Khan and can eas­ily win with no in­de­pend­ent or Demo­crat­ic votes—just as Demo­crats range from some­what lib­er­al all the way to the left of Karl Marx. With Trump in the White House, Demo­crats are tak­ing a page from the Re­pub­lic­an play­book un­der Barack Obama. On any­thing im­port­ant or re­motely con­tro­ver­sial, their philo­sophy is “don’t give ‘em a inch,” not a single vote, mak­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans do everything by them­selves. This is a bit of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but not much of one.

But then there are the dif­fi­culties that come with hav­ing Trump as pres­id­ent. First is the mat­ter of lead­er­ship—of the pres­id­ent provid­ing dir­ec­tion in terms of vis­ion and strategy, sub­stance and polit­ics, and how to get things done. Let’s just say that Trump is not giv­ing Lyn­don John­son a run for his money in these de­part­ments. If Obama was cri­ti­cized for “lead­ing from be­hind,” Trump is scarcely lead­ing at all. His lack of fa­mili­ar­ity with both the sub­stance of is­sues and how the pro­cess works, com­bined with his low ap­prov­al rat­ings, makes him al­most use­less in a tough le­gis­lat­ive fight.

Then there is the “got your back” quo­tient: That is, if a law­maker gives Trump a vote on a tough is­sue, will the pres­id­ent then back up the mem­ber? It is ar­gu­able just how help­ful Trump was in House pas­sage, on the second at­tempt, of the Amer­ic­an Health Care Act. From my vant­age point, he made little dif­fer­ence, des­pite seem­ing to be sup­port­ive. After a highly pub­li­cized meet­ing with Reps. Fred Up­ton and Billy Long, he helped strike a com­prom­ise provid­ing $8 bil­lion in ad­di­tion­al funds to cre­ate high-risk pools that go to pa­tients with preex­ist­ing con­di­tions. Os­tens­ibly, that provided the last few votes needed for the 217-213 pas­sage of the AHCA, ef­fect­ively re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing Obama­care.

Im­me­di­ately after the vote, House Re­pub­lic­ans who voted for the meas­ure were loaded in­to a cara­van of busses on a trip to the White House for what seemed to be a cross between a Rose Garden bill sign­ing and a pep rally, with Trump bask­ing in the glow of a rare le­gis­lat­ive vic­tory. Fast for­ward to last week when, over lunch with a group of sen­at­ors, Trump said the House bill was “mean” and didn’t go far enough in pro­tect­ing people. In one ges­ture, Trump shoved those House Re­pub­lic­ans in prob­lem­at­ic dis­tricts un­der the busses they had rode to cel­eb­rate with him.

Right now, Trump is show­ing a 38 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing and 56 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al in the Gal­lup track­ing poll. The Huff­Post/Poll­ster av­er­age is at 40 per­cent ap­prov­al, 55 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al; Real­Clear­Polit­ics has it at 40 per­cent ap­prove, 53 per­cent dis­ap­prove. At this point in their pres­id­en­cies, Obama had an ap­prov­al rat­ing of 59 per­cent in the Gal­lup poll, George W. Bush re­cor­ded 55 per­cent, Bill Clin­ton was at a com­par­able 39 per­cent, George H.W. Bush was at 70 per­cent, and Ron­ald Re­agan was at 59 per­cent. All but George W. Bush would go on to sus­tain tough losses in the House, the Sen­ate, or both in the sub­sequent midterm elec­tions.

His­tory shows that there is little per­cent­age in a House mem­ber or sen­at­or run­ning away from an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent of the same party. It dis­il­lu­sions their base but doesn’t as­suage those who dis­agree and dis­like the pres­id­ent. Over the years, mem­bers have found that simply stay­ing in their own lane, try­ing to build their own re­cord of ac­com­plish­ments, is a bet­ter way to sur­vive the polit­ic­al un­der­tow of an elec­tion. It doesn’t al­ways work, but a law­maker doesn’t have much of a choice.

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