Indeed, pretty much everything about Trump’s handling of his new gig has lawmakers speculating, in part because he is the first president with no record of public service. “It’s a totally unique situation in American history,” said senior House Republican Tom Cole. With Obama, “you at least had a clue,” said Cole. But Trump? “We don’t really know how he’s going to react.”
A House Democratic aide (who, like most people I spoke with, wished to remain nameless on the topic of Congress’s navigating the Trump era) put it less charitably: “It’s uncharted territory with a madman at the helm.”
Amidst the ambiguity, however, there are Big-Picture adjustments that Hill folks acknowledge need to be made—by both teams––some of which go to the heart of how Congress has functioned (or not) in recent years.
For triumphant Republicans, the central challenge extends beyond the strategic into the existential: They must learn to function stripped of their unifying identity as anti-Obama warriors. Democrats, meanwhile, will be attempting a precarious balancing act of disagreeing, strongly and often, yet without being so disagreeable that they brass off the white-working-class Trump voters they are so desperate to win back.
This is a tougher transformation than you might think. For the past eight years, whether in the majority or minority, the House or the Senate, GOP lawmakers have rallied their conference, and their voters, around a single, straightforward mission: to make life as difficult as possible for the 44th president.
This was especially true in the House, where the bulk of Republicans were expressly elected to fight Obama. Less than a third of the conference has served under any other president. For the rest, a life of stalwart opposition is all they have ever known. And as frustrating as it may have been at times, the goal of stopping Obama at all costs stood clear and constant––comfortable even.
That all ended Friday.
Back in 2009, then-House minority leader John Boehner shared with me (with excruciating prescience) how much easier it is to be in the minority than to run things. “One of the great shocks of 1994 was--we had won the majority, and no one in our caucus had ever been in the majority--no one realized how much more work it is.” Stopping the other team from scoring is relatively simple, he said. But when you’re in charge? “You hand the football off to a fullback, and he’s gotta run with it.”
With Trump in the White House, Republicans face a similarly seismic shift. Whatever does (or does not) come out of Washington going forward, the GOP owns it. (As Cole has been joking of late, “You can’t blame it on somebody else now.”)
Most practically, Republican lawmakers must pivot from blocking someone else’s agenda to crafting legislation that can garner at least a smidge of bipartisan support. (The GOP’s Senate majority, you will recall, shrank this election, and Democrats are not in a conciliatory mood.) They can no longer just hate on government. They’ve got to figure out how to make it better.