Let’s suppose you’re a fan of Trumpism. You really want to build the wall, impose a travel ban, and repeal Obamacare. If all that holds true for you, then you should be livid at Donald Trump’s incompetent and sloppy administration.
Talk about a missed opportunity. Just imagine what might have been accomplished with Republicans controlling the House and Senate—and, say, President Pat Buchanan in the White House.
Don’t laugh. Buchanan might not be your cup of tea, but he is a highly intelligent and seasoned political operator, speechwriter, communicator, historian, and thinker. He also has a coherent and consistent populist/nationalist/pro-Putin worldview, and he is surprisingly likable. He would have known the policy issues at hand, and he wouldn’t have made Trump’s rookie mistakes.
Speaking of which, consider this: In the days leading up to a vote in which Republicans fell one vote short of passing an admittedly ridiculous “skinny” Obamacare repeal bill, Donald Trump: (a) engaged in an ugly public dispute with his conservative attorney general, (b) threatened to veto a veto-proof Russian sanctions bill, (c) hired a new communications director who threatened to sic the FBI on Trump’s chief of staff for leaking (he didn’t leak)—and engaged in an expletives-laden interview with a reporter, (d) delivered a speech to the Boy Scouts that they had to apologize for, and (e) tweeted out a new policy on transgender military members that caught his joint chiefs unawares.
That’s a pretty amazing run to string together. Granted, Senate Republicans deserve a lot of blame for their failure, but despite promising it would be easy (tired of winning, yet?) Trump sure hasn’t made it easy.
In the immortal words of Axl Rose, “Where do we go now?”
Even if Trump were to suddenly contain the drama, his task doesn’t get easier. We are six months into this administration, and all conservatives have to show for it is Neil Gorsuch. This feels like a big missed opportunity for a party that controls everything. Imagine if they had taken my advice in January and avoided this predictable dumpster fire.
It’s not even clear if Republicans will now abandon the idea of repealing and replacing Obamacare via reconciliation (and returning to regular order)—or simply move on to tax reform and infrastructure. Republicans are stuck in a quagmire. They can’t move on—and they can’t pass a bill. Yet they keep trying. And the more time they waste, the greater the argument for giving repeal and replace one more try. Republicans are victims of the fallacy of sunk costs.
Instead of forcing a “come to Jesus moment,” these defeats often lead to a new scheme (see the idea of “skinny repeal”). Don’t be surprised if the idea of simply ending the legislative filibuster (something Trump has advocated) comes back.
It’s also unclear how Trump will react to this latest legislative defeat. Instead of chastening him, it will probably just cause him to double down on his bad behavior. His administration threatened Alaska after Lisa Murkowski voted against the motion to proceed; what might be in store for John McCain’s Arizona?
Trump could also decide to take it out on the public. Remember how Trump keeps flirting with the idea that we should just let Obamacare fail? There is talk Republicans could now withhold CSR payments (cost-sharing reduction payments to help insurance companies insure poor people) to expedite Obamacare’s collapse.
As Michael Tomasky notes, Democrats could push back on this by using the fast approaching debt limit as leverage. This sets up the possibility of another dramatic high-stakes showdown in Washington.
If said showdown happens, don’t be surprised if Trump finds a scapegoat (his normal pattern when he doesn’t get his way). John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are obvious targets. But consider what he said to HHS Secretary Tom Price at that Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia: “By the way, are you going to get the votes? He better get them. He better get them. Oh, he better. Otherwise I'll say, ‘Tom, you're fired.’ I'll get somebody.” This was possibly a joke, but it was also (possibly) a thinly veiled warning. Might Tom Price soon be added to the growing list of cabinet members and aides that Trump is trying to publicly drum out of office?
In fairness to Trump, it probably is time to clean house—just not in the way he wants to do it. An atmosphere of chaos permeates the White House, pitting brother against brother (Cain vs. Abel).
Trump won’t take this advice, but if he wants to turn things around, he should never touch Twitter again. He also should hire some seasoned adults who are White House veterans. Nobody there currently has any legislative experience, and it shows (this is why even a serious military general wouldn’t solve the problem). I’m not even saying that Trump needs to hire a James Baker or a David Gergen (though that wouldn’t be horrible advice, this would lead to the charge that the “establishment” had co-opted his agenda).
So here’s an idea: Trump should hire—and fully empower—a seasoned White House Chief of Staff (who shares his stated goals) to begin turning things around. If he truly wants to pass his populist/nationalist agenda, he will need someone competent and serious to get that job done.
Time to call Pat Buchanan?