Op-Ed: The Search for a Helpful Trump

Around a year ago, the Republican Party was in crisis. With the defeat of Donald Trump all but assured (Hillary was consistently holding a 5-10 point lead), it was tempting to begin to look ahead to what would happen to the Republican party following its chaotic primary and dismal general.

One thing that became clear was that the Republicans could not simply ignore what Donald Trump represented: he had arisen out of a series of decisions made or abetted by the GOP. They owned him. He represented a real movement in their party and not an accident of history. Moving past Trump would therefore have required a great deal of soul-searching by a party with a mixed record of that kind of healthy self-reflection (think about the effectiveness of their famous 2012 post-mortem). The Republicans could not, as would be so easy, treat Trump as wholly different from themselves. Trump supporters, for their part, would surely not go away quietly.

Even though Trump won, the running battle within the Republican party has not subsided six months into his presidency. At its core, the issue concerns congressional Republicans' attempts to reconcile an unpopular Trump presidency with their own electoral and ideological positions. In addition, they must appeal to a new Republican base that continues to reject many of their orthodoxies.

Anticipating failure, many members of Congress sought to distance themselves from the President, only to come crawling back when he seems to be on the rise. Unable to completely ignore Trump’s base nor fully sign on to his agenda (or endorse his personality), Republicans are stuck in an uncomfortable twilight zone.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. From the very beginning, congressional Republicans tended to hope that Trump would be, in the best realistic case, merely a rubber-stamp president. The hope was that he would simply sign any Republican legislation that came his way and allow Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to set the agenda. A form of benign neglect, then, was an ideal outcome for nervous Republicans.

There were a few compelling reasons why this might have been the case. Partly, this dashed hope arose out of the perception that Trump, still held by many today, was intellectually unserious and not policy-oriented. In addition, during the campaign, he apparently planned to empower his vice presidential candidate with authority over domestic and foreign affairs, while he set about "making America great again.” Combine these two threads together and you have the potential for an authoritative Congress and a weak, disinterested presidency.

Congressional Republicans also hoped that, on top of his perceived unseriousness on policy, Trump would stay away from difficult political questions because his enduring unpopularity would make it more difficult to pass bills. His scandals, Republicans knew, would distract from policy discussion and destroy the political momentum needed to convince the public about the need for change.

Trump, however, has proven unwilling to leave the politics to the politicians. Instead, he has been actively if fitfully pursuing his own agenda — which does not always align with that of congressional Republicans. In fact, it’s often the opposite.

The basis for the tense, even hostile relationship between Republicans and Trump is, at its heart, fairly narrow self-interest. Where Republicans certainly worry about the health of their legislative agenda, what they (like most politicians) worry about most is the health of their reelection chances. So Republicans have tried, at various times, to either bind Trump to them (when he's popular) or distance themselves from him (when he's not).

This difficult relationship manifested itself perhaps most clearly in the healthcare debate, which is currently unresolved after McConnell's attempt to rush the Senate bill to vote failed in late June. Viewed generally, the healthcare effort floundered due to a divided GOP caucus and a disastrously uncoordinated plan. The uncertainty over whether to call the initial House bill "Trumpcare" or "Ryancare" or "Republicare" is indicative of this confusion. The fact that Trump at times celebrated the bill and at other moments denounced it only adds to the argument for a profound disconnect between the White House and GOP leadership. Far from being little more than a signature on the final bill, Trump has repeatedly proven to be a liability in the legislative process — exactly the situation Ryan and McConnell hoped to avoid.

Trump's fair-weather cheerleading of the House bill obviously made an impression on McConnell, who shielded the details his own Senate bill from both the White House as well as the majority of the Republican party itself. Seeking to insulate the proposal not just from the negative effects of Trump but from the negative effects of debating the bill itself, he attempted to spring the bill on the public and vote on it as quickly as possible.

That attempt failed, thanks to the increasingly common opposing coalition of far-right (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul) and moderate (Susan Collins, Dean Heller) Republicans. But it does show that McConnell learned two very important lessons from the House experience of dealing with Trump.

First, he learned that discussing unpopular bills leads, not surprisingly, to unpopularity. An increasingly disliked president, meanwhile, can only make matters worse. As a result, the better Democrats are at tying Republicans to Trump in the minds of voters (as they are arguably failing to do), the more success they will have.

But McConnell's second lesson is perhaps the more worrisome and certainly the more devious. Though it's difficult to say for certain, it seems likely that McConnell has decided to try to roll with the tweets, so to speak. What this means is that rather than fight against the President by responding to what he says at 6am, McConnell now seeks to turn that distraction to his own advantage.

The evolution of McConnell's communications strategy is interesting in itself. During the campaign he was notoriously silent on any number of Trump scandals, often simply refusing to answer questions about them. Rarely, he spoke out strongly against or strongly for the President’s actions. But now, in addition to that, he may be seeking to use the scandals as cover for his own political work.

This idea is not new, but it is most often applied to the President himself. Trump's changing-the-channel strategy for the media is unique because he seeks to replace one scandal with a different scandal. The result is remarkably effective: he sucks up all the outrage and attention and then just moves on the next thing, forcing everyone to forget about last week’s absurdity.

McConnell seems to hope that everyone will forget about him, as well, and in doing so will allow him to quietly put all his long-desired projects into action. Healthcare, tax reform, immigration — they could all slide under the radar.

It’s still a tall task. More likely, the idea of benign chaos is just as faulty as the Republicans previous hope for benign neglect. For most of the public, there simply isn’t a bright line between the White House and the GOP caucus, as much as Ryan and McConnell might wish there were. It took only a single week of exposure and a CBO score for the Senate bill, for example, to crash, despite the best efforts of both Republicans and Trump.

The troubled relationship between the President and his party will, however, continue so long as the Republicans see a sliver of an interest in keeping him around, or until the Democrats regain control of Congress. If Republicans continue to believe in some form of helpful Trump, be it benign neglect or benign chaos, real change may be a long time in coming. But if Trump’s popularity continues to slide and his party fails to make significant legislative gains, the Republicans may be in for a rough 2018.

And if the worst should happen, from the Republican perspective, the GOP may be forced to put some serious thought into their approach to politics after all. Republicans will have to face the facts that, despite their attempts to distance themselves from him, to make him into a rubber-stamp, to exploit his distractions, to manipulate his base — despite all that, he's still a Republican and he's the President. They own him, even if they wish they didn’t.

Christian Paas-Lang is a journalist and political commentator from Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter and find more of his work here.

Christian Paas-Lang