When Republicans imagined having a president of their own and control of Congress, they thought it would be a nonstop string of legislative achievements and improvements to government, bringing an inspiring new era of efficiency and effectiveness that showed Americans what the GOP was really capable of.
That is not quite how things are working out. Let’s take a brief tour around the news from just today, to see what is befalling the Trump administration:
- The travel ban: Federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland halted the second version of the administration’s travel ban, ruling that its discriminatory intent likely makes it unconstitutional and putting it on indefinite hold.
- The Affordable Care Act repeal: After a brutal Congressional Budget Office assessment showed that the Republican bill would cause 24 million Americans to lose their health coverage, House Speaker Paul Ryan now admits that the bill can’t pass the House in its current form.
- The budget: “President Trump on Thursday will unveil a budget plan that calls for a sharp increase in military spending and stark cuts across much of the rest of the government including the elimination of dozens of long-standing federal programs that assist the poor, fund scientific research and aid America’s allies abroad.”
That last one may not look like bad news — yet. But it’s going to produce both internal and external problems. It’s already causing consternation among Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom like to talk about limited government in the abstract but aren’t as happy about the kind of radical cuts the administration is suggesting, setting up a conflict between the White House and Congress. They’ll also find that the public, too, thinks “small government” sounds like a good idea until you start cutting the programs they depend on. And that’s before we even get to the Russia scandal.
Every administration has good periods and bad periods, successes and failures. But this is more than a slow start; two months in, this presidency is a rolling disaster.
What’s going on? The administration isn’t failing because of some brilliant strategy on Democrats’ part. They’re being weighed down by problems of their own making. In isolation each problem would be difficult but ultimately manageable; together they’re giving the administration nothing but bad days. Let’s take them each in turn:
Abysmal management. Trump was only the latest in a long line of political figures who argued that if someone from outside politics took over the government, he’d whip it into shape with his business savvy and management expertise. The result has been the most chaotic and incompetent White House anyone can remember. As Politico reported Wednesday, “A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies — inside their own government,” creating “an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch.”
Almost no one at the top levels of the Trump administration has experience in government, which not surprisingly has made everything more difficult as they bumble around trying to figure out how things work. Whether because of their own indifference to governing or the inability to find anyone willing to work for Trump, the administration hasn’t even nominated people to fill more than 500 of the 553 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, leaving agencies across the government barely able to function. If this is what Trump considers a “fine-tuned machine,” imagine what it would look like if it weren’t running so smoothly.
A disastrous first legislative priority. Republicans may have had no choice but to pursue the repeal of the ACA right off the bat, but they could hardly have gone about it in a less competent way. After seven years of attacking the law, they still hadn’t settled on their alternative, leading to a hastily written plan that not only would create a health-care catastrophe if implemented but also managed to win the displeasure of their members in both the Senate (for being too harsh) and the House (for not being harsh enough). Now the White House is saying it’s Paul Ryan’s fault, Ryan is trying to make Trump share the blame, and the whole thing is spiraling downward. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, writes that the repeal bill “has had the worst rollout of any major piece of legislation in memory,” and has left the GOP “staring into the abyss.”
An impulsive, distracted president. People keep wondering if the latest Trump outburst is a clever ploy to distract the country from whatever piece of bad news is currently vexing the administration. But the one who’s easily distractible is the president himself, and then he in turn distracts his staff and congressional allies. Just look at what’s happening with his accusation that President Barack Obama tapped his phones. On impulse, after reading an article on a white nationalist website, Trump levels a ludicrous and baseless charge, then everyone in the White House has to pretend that it’s serious and legitimate, and they’re forced to answer questions about it for weeks. All that time could be spent advancing an affirmative agenda.
Because he can never admit that he was wrong, Trump drags the issue out endlessly, just as he did with earlier iterations of this pattern, about the size of his inaugural crowd or the millions of phantom illegal votes that led to his popular vote loss (I’d encourage you to read the transcript of his Wednesday interview with Tucker Carlson and marvel at the fact that this man is actually president of the United States). That then makes life difficult for Republicans in Congress, who are put in the awkward position of either defending the latest bit of stupidity issuing from the Oval Office or being honest about how ridiculous it is, which they know would win them the president’s ire.
Much as you can blame Republicans in Congress, including Ryan, for being Trump’s enablers, there’s no doubt that they’re not happy about how things are going. And as time goes on and their minds turn to the 2018 elections, they’re going to start thinking more and more about their own survival. Given that even in the best of times the president’s party usually loses seats in the midterms, they may begin looking for ways to separate themselves from an unpopular president, which is only going to make future legislating more complicated.
Now, the caveat. Liberals shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that if the Trump administration’s political standing or basic competence don’t improve, then lots of very conservative things with profound effects on people’s lives won’t still happen. They will, and in some cases already have. And there’s plenty of time for the administration to get its act together and start operating with some minimal level of competence. But if I were a Republican, I wouldn’t be too pleased with what we’ve seen so far.