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.