On a day the incoming administration was reaching out to Democrats, members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus demonstrated an extraordinary — even for them — obtuseness.
The right-wing ideologues have started barking out orders and drawing lines in the sand: Obamacare in its entirety must go! The Senate filibuster must go! No infrastructure plan that isn’t paid for! Silly geese. They imagine that the threat of exposing GOP leaders’ insufficient conservative purity will make House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quake in their boots. Apparently, the Freedom Caucus zealots missed the election of a non-conservative populist president with few, if any, objectives other than maintaining public adoration. Freedom Caucus fellows, you guys are about to be run over by a combination of “establishment” Republicans and Democrats who jettisoned the “small government” fixation months ago.
Ryan, McConnell and President-elect Donald Trump don’t need to kowtow to Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) or Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). If Trump wants a big, overstuffed infrastructure bill, he’ll get one — with Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supplying more than enough votes. So long as there is a president willing to go to the left to pass his agenda, the Freedom Caucus becomes largely irrelevant. Yes, it really is delightful, isn’t it?
Well, you say, there over in the Senate is Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is still determined to get his 100 percent rating from Heritage Action. He could threaten to hold up legislation, right? Well, he might want to argue for keeping the filibuster, then. But with or without the filibuster, McConnell can now go to his bloc of 51 colleagues and a whole slew of Democrats to get business done. Collectively, they can shut down (and up) Cruz and cut deals with the White House. McConnell and Trump are both dealmakers, less concerned with ideological purity than most every president/majority leader combo (of the same party) in recent memory (e.g. President Obama/Sen. Harry Reid; President George W. Bush/Sen. Bill Frist; President Bill Clinton/Sen. George Mitchell). McConnell wants conservative judges; beyond that, there’s a lot of room to deal.
Democrats, if they have not already realized this, should understand that they have more power than the ideologically inflexible Freedom Caucus. The Democrats can deliver votes for a huge infrastructure bill. The Democrats can give Trump votes for Obamacare reform that doesn’t look all that different from the original. Why would Trump need to deal with the penny-pinching Freedom Caucus and the perpetually angry Cruz (who wants to take things away from people) when he has the Democratic elves to help him spreed good cheer — and pork?
The Democrats will go to the mat to stop immigration roundups and other horrors. They will stand with the “little guy” against tax cuts for the rich. If Trump really wants to round up 11 million people or add trillions to the debt while giving his fellow moguls huge tax relief, he’ll have to rely on Republicans. (You can almost see Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Cheshire Cat grin at the prospect that Republicans will need to take sole responsibility for highly unpopular items — that is, if Trump really wants them.)
On judges, Democrats, if they don’t want to lose the filibuster, will have to work on picking off stray Republicans to block picks they feel are the most egregious.
Democrats, like Republicans under Obama, won’t have the power to stop executive orders, although they will mount court challenges.
Moreover, because Trump does not appear to have any fixed ideas, Schumer (D-N.Y.) and company might try some wacky trades that no other GOP president would consider. For example, Trump signs the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protect gays in the workplace; Democrats vote for the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump increases federal college tuition subsidies; Democrats get to stop those on the no-fly list from buying guns (something Trump was interested in doing anyway). Deals, deals, deals. Spend, spend, spend. By the time the 2018 elections roll around, Trump may be doing ads for Democratic Senate incumbents. (Remember, Trump loves borrowing so much that running up the U.S. debt should not faze him.)
To recap, the Freedom Caucus has far less power than it thinks, as do groups like Heritage Action that want to enforce conservative orthodoxy despite popular opposition. Democrats will do their best to block Trump on some nominations, nix tax cuts for the rich and prevent inhumane measures on immigration. Aside from that, Schumer may get much more from a Trump administration than would have been gettable under a Hillary Clinton presidency (the GOP would have crawled over glass to thwart Clinton at every turn). Welcome to the bizarro world of Trump-era politics. Welcome to the demise of the Freedom Caucus.