Trump Is Losing His Battle With the Republican Party
The president’s major achievements all dovetail with longstanding GOP priorities, while nearly all of his distinctive policy proposals have stalled or failed.
When President Trump decided to throw his weight behind a plan to slash legal immigration last week, the way many people heard about it was through a pair of dramatic exchanges between reporters and Stephen Miller, a White House senior adviser who is among the hardest of hardliners on immigration in the administration. That made the initiative seem the latest example of how Trump has brought forward a new series of policies that look to pull the U.S. back from the world and keep the world out of the U.S., from his Muslim travel ban to his emphasis on illegal immigration. Even Richard Spencer loves it.
But the plan that Trump endorsed is actually one offered by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, both of whom, while supporters of Trump, are longtime Republicans who entered office before him. A peculiar thing has happened to Trump, the Republican president with the least fealty to the Republican Party’s traditional values, shortest ties to the party, and greatest opposition within it. As I wrote last week, Trump has gotten more done than his critics and opponents might wish, or might wish to admit. But almost everything he has achieved has been directly in line with traditional Republican priorities, while most of the things that are peculiar to Trump have failed or stalled out. Forget the “deep state”: It’s the GOP that’s blocking the president’s agenda.
Take the legal-immigration bill. What makes it a potent proposal is that it has substantial overlap between both the Trump wing of the party and the GOP ancien régime. Cotton, the ambitious young Arkansan, has aligned himself with Trump to an unusual degree, given his pedigree as a socially conservative, fiscally conservative national-security hawk. Perdue ran as a classic business Republican when he ran for Senate in Georgia in 2014. They are not alone in wishing to limit legal immigration. During the 2016 GOP primary, Scott Walker and Rick Santorum both came out in favor of restrictions, before Trump even entered the race. If the Cotton-Perdue proposal succeeds, it will be because it draws support both from Trump’s supporters and from many establishment Republicans.
Realistically, it faces long odds. Lots of other Republicans oppose limiting legal immigration, from Paul Ryan to Orrin Hatch to Lindsey Graham. But plenty of other policies that sit in the Venn diagram overlap of Trumpism and traditional Republicanism either stand a better chance or have already succeeded.
The most obvious example is also what is arguably Trump’s greatest achievement: his successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The Senate has confirmed four other federal judges, with 30 more nominated. These appointments are important because they place conservative, and often young, jurists into lifetime jobs where they can reshape the law for decades to come. Few of these judges qualify as particularly Trumpist; Gorsuch was a rising star in conservative jurisprudence well before the president’s arrival. Trump has long recognized how powerful the nominating power is as a tool to keep GOP officials from abandoning him. In August 2016, he warned Republicans, “Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me. You know why? Justices of the Supreme Court.”
Trump has also seen some success on the southern border, where crossings have decreased since he took office. Interestingly, that has happened without any actual construction on Trump’s famous border wall. But while Trump’s rhetoric about illegal immigrants was far more inflammatory than what any other Republican presidential contender was willing to say, Republican voters and many officials (as well as many Democrats) have long supported better border security. In April 2016, nearly two-third of GOP voters wanted a wall along the entire border. However, Republican officeholders tend to be more skeptical of the necessity of building a 50-foot wall along the border, or of drastically expanding the Border Patrol—so it’s no surprise than neither of those proposals has moved very far.
The balance of Trump’s major accomplishments, as I laid them last week, fall under the umbrella of rolling back Obama-era regulations, particularly environmental and business regulations, as well tougher crime policies. What these things share is that they are long-standing priorities of big business and of pro-business Republicans. The GOP has been hostile to regulation in general, and to environmental regulation in particular, for years. And since these are changes that are being made by lifelong Republicans who control executive branch departments and can proceed without Congress, and don’t have to rely on Trump’s personal involvement, they’re the things that are getting done. They’re also the sorts of measures (and maybe even the specific measures) that any Republican administration would have pursued.
Meanwhile, the priorities that made Trump distinctive—the ones that he talked about most on the stump, and the ones that seem to have brought new voters into the Republican coalition—are withering. The border wall is unbuilt and largely unfunded. The Border Patrol expansion is tenuous. The promise to protect entitlements has not actually been broken, but Trump has repeatedly signaled his support for Obamacare repeal plans that would take a bite out of Medicaid. NAFTA renegotiation remains in the hypothetical future. Republicans have torpedoed Trump’s hopes for a rapprochement with Russia, forcing additional sanctions against Russia down his throat with veto-proof majorities in the Congress they control. The massive infrastructure plan that Trump promised seems dead well before arrival, killed by non-Trumpist Republicans who had little interest in a huge spending plan straight from the Democratic playbook—no matter if Trump’s voters liked the idea.
As the slow-rolling, episodic debacle of Obamacare repeal demonstrates, overlap between the Trump and traditional wings of the Republican Party is not always enough to push a policy over the top. Both sides agreed on the priority, a long-running GOP goal that was also a Trump stump staple. But in some respects, that, too, was a victim of the gap. In reality, there were two different GOP factions, one that simply wanted to tear Obamacare down, and one that wanted to tinker around the edges but preserve many of the popular provisions of the law. And though Trump took out his anger for the bill’s failures on GOP senators like Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and John McCain who voted against it, that trio’s stated priorities were actually much closer to Trump’s—who claimed he’d bring premiums down, improve plans, and also expand coverage—than they were to those of hardline conservatives like Mike Lee.
Why has Trump failed to push his own pet causes through, even as conservative Republican policies prosper? Wasn’t this the Trump who had bent the GOP to his will and overcome the fearsome party establishment? One culprit is Trump’s lack of discipline and short attention span, and his manifest lack of interest in the details and mechanics of policymaking. But some of his failures are rooted in the very same party takeover. Because he captured the GOP by blitzkrieg, having little experience in politics, he arrived in Washington not only without his own experience to draw on but also without the benefit of the exterior structures—think-tanks, lobbying concerns, outside-spending groups—upon which most presidents can rely. Though most Oval Office occupants have more experience than Trump, they also don’t usually need to do all the work of pushing policies through Congress.
Building that support structure requires time, capturing existing institutions, or both. The closest Trump had to that was the Heritage Foundation, a venerable conservative think tank that had taken a turn away from providing intellectual heft for the GOP to becoming, under the leadership of former Senator Jim DeMint, a gadfly that pushed Tea Party concepts on the party and punished any renegades. Heritage embraced Trump early on.
But the awkward fit was clear. In response to Trump’s call for a $1 trillion infrastructure package, Heritage produced a plan that downplayed direct federal projects, relying heavily instead on tax credits and public-private partnerships to have private-sector companies do the work, rather than the government. What little detail Trump has offered on his infrastructure plan since the election seems close to the Heritage blueprint, but that means it’s a long way from what he seemed to be promising on the trail, and in any case it’s going nowhere. Meanwhile, Heritage’s board pushed DeMint out and the think tank seems to be reinventing itself.
So it’s not just Trump’s infrastructure plan that has failed to materialize; it’s also the metaphorical infrastructure Trump requires to advance his agenda. The president promised during the campaign that “I alone can fix it,” and despite his struggles so far, he shows no signs of wavering from the insistence on going it alone.
It isn’t hard to see a line between these struggles and a New York Times report over the weekend about the shadow 2020 contest arising between Republicans who are quietly preparing presidential runs if Trump decides, or is forced, not to run for reelection in three years—or perhaps even if he does. One of those potential candidates is Vice President Pence, whom the Times noted has taken a variety of preparatory steps, even while maintaining his allegiance to Trump. (Indeed, Pence fiercely denied the report, despite the steps he has taken.) A few months ago, it looked like Trump had successfully conducted a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Two-hundred days into his presidency, things look a little different. Having stymied his distinctive policy innovations and successfully implemented their own, why wouldn’t GOP mandarins finish the job off and shove Trump aside in favor of a Republican who can do all the same things—and without the chaos and embarrassment that Trump lugs along with him?