The thing that’s wrong with the tweet below isn’t the thing that you might at first have assumed.
It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2017
President Trump appears here to be questioning the loyalty of senators who have balked at supporting him on the issue of the moment, the Senate Republicans’ proposal to overhaul Obamacare. There’s an unsubtle nudge within it: I helped you win, and now you owe me.
Taken at face value, that itself is not a good argument.
It’s tricky to identify the role that the broader political environment played in a candidate’s victory or loss in a campaign. We’re still arguing about why Hillary Clinton lost last year, for example, in part because there are so many things that might have made the difference in Trump’s narrow electoral college victory.
One way to consider the question is to look at how Trump did in each state versus how the Republicans running for Senate did. If he outperformed them — got a higher percentage of the vote, for example — that suggests he was broadly more popular and may have pulled Republicans to the polls who otherwise would not have voted. A better metric for that, of course, is the actual number of votes cast.
In November, Trump got a higher percentage of the vote than 11 Republican Senate candidates and more actual votes than 13. But those Senate candidates outperformed Trump in vote percentages 23 times and in vote totals 21 times.
This data, though, includes Senate candidates who lost — clearly not individuals who are included in Trump’s hand-wringing tweet. Among Republicans who won, Trump got a higher percentage of the vote than five of them, and more total votes than seven.
So who were those seven senators, who might have benefited from Trump’s base of support streaming to the polls?
There’s Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who won by nearly 24 points.
There’s Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who won by 21 points.
There’s Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who won by nine points — in a state where Trump likely overperformed in large part because he’d picked its governor as his running mate.
There’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who won by more than 15 percentage points. Murkowski is a senator whose vote Trump has been fighting to earn — but it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t owe him her victory.
The other three are interesting cases. They are Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Paul has been a critic of the health-care bill and was an early “no” on it in various iterations — but he won his race by almost 15 percentage points despite being outperformed by Trump. Trump can’t claim that one. Toomey won by only a little more than a point, but has been supportive of the overhaul effort in the Senate. Same with Blunt, who won by about three points. He, too, is a yes vote.
The other opponents of the bill include Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Collins wasn’t up for reelection last year; Lee and Moran won by 41 and 30 percentage points, respectively. Lee did 23 percentage points better than Trump in Utah; he certainly wasn’t carried to victory by the president. Even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has opposed earlier iterations of the bill and who won by only about three points last year, got more votes in his state than Trump and won by a wider margin.
Again, let’s set all of that aside. There’s no evidence that senators who are wavering owe Trump their positions in the first place. But even if they did, Trump is demanding loyalty to him while repeatedly having demonstrated that he can’t be trusted to reciprocate.
Trump treats loyalty the way that he treats bipartisan unity: He invokes it regularly but repeatedly demonstrates that he simply means that people should rally around and unconditionally back him, not that he’d do his part in the bargain. After the election, he kept insisting on unity, but did little to nothing to actually reach out to or consider the viewpoints of his Democratic opponents. He asks for loyalty, cajoling Republican members of the House for their votes on that chamber’s version of the health-care bill, only to later throw them under the bus by describing the legislation as “mean.” It’s always been easier to predict Trump’s stated position on an issue by considering current popular opinion or the views of the audience to which he’s speaking than to appeal to his core ideologies. He’s done little to demonstrate to Republican senators that, if this bill is passed and becomes an albatross for the party, he won’t quickly try to disavow it.
Even more broadly, of course, Trump’s tweet insisting that he helped Republicans win and now they owe him flies in the face of his core campaign promise: He was the dealmaker who could get the job done. “I alone can fix it,” he famously said, almost precisely one year ago at the Republican convention. Where’s the fixing? Where’s the deal? This is the master dealmaker, crankily tweeting that senators owe him, even though they don’t?
Trump has learned that being president isn’t like being CEO: Congress doesn’t work for him and can’t be ordered to do what he wants. His pledge that he could fix everything was, of course, always empty. If there’s one thing that career politicians know, it’s who got them elected and who might get them elected next time.
A few senators, up in 2018, are certainly wary of offending Trump’s energetic base of support. But when Trump is threatening people not up for reelection until after he is or claiming to have delivered seats to people who can be confident they would have won anyway, it’s pretty easy to understand why this deal keeps eluding him.