There was more than a little irony in President Trump’s tweeted demand Wednesday that the hard-line conservative faction in the House that stymied him on health care “get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
As the president should understand better than most, partisan politics has long ceased to operate as a team sport, one in which a coach calls the plays.
Trump’s own romp through the Republican primaries last year — vanquishing a raft of contenders more favored by the GOP establishment — was testament to how little control party leaders now have in channeling the passions and enthusiasm of the rank and file.
Now at the head of the party himself, and struggling to rack up some legislative achievements, Trump is fighting against some of the same forces that helped get him elected.
Meanwhile, the GOP is learning that controlling all the levers of government is not a guarantee that it can govern. Forging a consensus is far easier in opposition than it is in pushing an agenda forward.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) responded to Trump’s tweet with a taunting reference to the president’s now-familiar promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington: “It didn’t take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump. No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. Establishment.”
Amash also told reporters that Trump’s tactic would be “constructive in fifth grade. It may allow a child to get his way, but that’s not how our government works.”
Though both Republicans and Democrats vote in tight formation on Capitol Hill, that is more a reflection of their cultural and ideological uniformity than any discipline or control from the top.
“We are increasingly about some sort of tribal identity in politics,” said Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel.
To more strident House conservatives, the health-care plan that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put together and Trump tried unsuccessfully to sell was merely a watered-down version of the Affordable Care Act that they had promised to demolish.
The standoff also revived long-standing doubts among conservatives about Trump’s commitment to their cause, given his history for taking stands that defy any consistent ideology.
Though Trump has warned that he may campaign against members of the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, the potency of that threat is diminished by the president’s sagging approval numbers.
On Thursday afternoon, Trump stepped up his Twitter attacks on the caucus, singling out three of its members by name.
“Where are @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador? #RepealANDReplace #Obamacare,” he tweeted.
But nearly every one of the Freedom Caucus members — including those three — won last fall by greater margins of the vote than Trump received in their districts.
“They do not serve at the beck and call of a president, even a president of their own party,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. “They understand — and I think it’s correct — that they have a better understanding of what people in their districts need and want.”
Nor do party leaders have the tools they once did to bring recalcitrant lawmakers into line and protect them from the consequences of the occasional apostasy.
Parties can no longer collect unlimited amounts of unregulated money to shore up the prospects of endangered incumbents. Congressional leaders cannot offer earmarks in spending bills funding projects in members’ home districts.
If Trump was threatening vengeance upon rebellious House members, Ryan took a different tack.
He warned that Trump himself could not be trusted to hew to conservative principles.
“If we don’t do this, then he’ll just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare, and that’s hardly a conservative thing,” Ryan said on CBS.
“This is a can-do president,” Ryan added. “He’s a business guy who wants to get things done, and I know that he wants to get things done with the Republican Congress. But if this Republican Congress allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I worry we’ll push the president into working with Democrats.”
Given how often Republicans have criticized congressional Democrats for passing the Affordable Care Act with no GOP votes seven years ago, it was jarring to hear the speaker suggest that bipartisanship was a bad thing.
“We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) tweeted.
Ryan’s statements also contradicted Trump’s insistence that he is the one with leverage, because Obamacare will “explode,” and Democrats will come running to him in desperation.
“I believe Democrats will come to us and say, ‘Look, let’s get together and get a great health-care bill or plan that’s really great for the people of our country,’ and I think that’s going to happen,” Trump said shortly after last week’s decision not to bring the Ryan-engineered health bill to the House floor.
So far, however, there is little sign of that happening. For their part, Democrats are sitting back and enjoying the spectacle.