Off to the Races

Lessons From an Ineffective President

Trump has alienated key constituencies and failed to move much through Congress. He has excelled only at taking unilateral actions.

President Trump gives a thumbs-up after meeting people impacted by Hurricane Harvey during a visit to the NRG Center in Houston on Saturday.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

If you wanted to offer a graduate-school class in how not to be an effective president of the United States, Donald Trump could write the textbook and teach the course.

The first lesson would be to cater myopically to your base, alienating those in your party who are not in your core constituency—particularly the congressional leadership and power players who would be the ones instrumental to actually getting anything done. The second lesson would be to offend independent voters, those not married to either party who are at least theoretically open to the arguments from both sides. Finally, the third lesson would be to do everything possible to eliminate any chance of getting defections from the ranks of the other party while riling up the other party’s base, giving them an intensity that they may have lacked when they lost last year’s election. That’s pretty much how you would do it—and it’s what Trump has done.

Acknowledging that election forecasting 14 months ahead is highly problematic, and barring some “Black Swan” event dramatically changing the direction of this campaign, we can expect this to continue—a very unpopular president leading a badly divided Republican Party with few major legislative successes to point to when they face the voters in 2018. History suggests that a party going into a midterm election under a president with sub-40 percent approval might realistically expect to lose at least 25 and as many as 50 or 60 House seats, and a half dozen or so Senate seats. As bleak as that sounds for Republicans, when you get down to specific states and districts, there are some potentially offsetting factors that could keep this election from being the disaster that one might expect.

The Senate has 10 Democratic seats up in states carried by Trump last year, five of those by 19 points or more, compared to just a single Republican seat up in a state won by Hillary Clinton. This is a map that Republicans have to love. Similarly, district boundaries and natural population patterns that concentrate Democratic votes into a relatively few states, and specifically into major urban areas, make this a tough House map for Democrats as well.

At this point, a decent bet might be a House that is almost evenly divided, with the winning party holding a majority by a half-dozen or so seats, and Republicans holding their Senate majority with numbers similar to the current 52-48 lineup.

With Republicans occupying the White House and holding majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in a decade, they had high hopes of repealing and replacing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, enacting major tax reform, passing an infrastructure plan, and building a border wall with Mexico. So far this Congress has been widely, and I think accurately, seen as lacking any significant accomplishments.

Interestingly, though, a Pew Research Center study released last week shows that a relatively high number of “substantive” public laws have been enacted. According to the Aug. 29 Pew report, “The current Congress is tied with the 110th (2007-08) for the fifth-highest count of substantive laws among the past 16 Congresses at this point in their respective first sessions.” This was the highest since the 108th Congress (2003-2004). Pew notes that it defines “substantive” by a “deliberately generous criteria—that is, any legislation other than renaming buildings, awarding medals, commemorating historic events or taking other purely ceremonial actions.”

Of the 46 public laws enacted this year, 14 had the sole purpose to “overturn various rules adopted by the Obama administration, under the 1996 Congressional Review Act. This is by far the heaviest use Congress has ever made of the CRA. Before this year, in fact, only one regulation had ever been undone via the procedure specified in that law. Those 14 “resolutions of disapproval” account for about 30 percent of the substantive laws, and a quarter of all the laws, enacted so far by this Congress.” Still, this Congress has so far not covered itself with glory or success.

To put it in simple terms, what Trump will be able to accomplish in this four-year term will be whatever he can do through unilateral, executive-branch actions. Environmental and labor laws will be the two areas most likely affected.

So a continuation of the current path suggests the last two years of Trump’s current term will likely feature very narrow majorities in the House and Senate, making it unlikely that the 116th Congress starting in January 2019 will be much different from what we are seeing now. Events can obviously change this trajectory, but it would take a big one to shift this course a great deal.

Back in Professor Trump’s political-science class, we are witnessing a controlled experiment: If a president is completely ineffectual in terms of passing legislation and dealing with Congress, but very aggressive in making important regulatory and policy changes at the department, agency, and commission level, how effective will that president be?

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