President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Everyone in Washington is trying to figure out why President Trump’s agenda has stalled on multiple fronts and why his approval numbers are swirling down the toilet. CNN’s Chris Cillizza suggests Trump’s penchant for disruption and chaos actually works against him. (I agree.) Others point to Trump’s failure to forge relationships on Capitol Hill.
Still others say the problem is congressional Republicans. Trump’s social media director has called for a primary against a House conservative who opposed Trump’s health plan, which may have violated a law designed to keep government officials from swaying elections. Some GOP groups are reportedly mulling ads targeting GOP lawmakers who don’t vote with Trump. Thus, the problem is their disloyalty.
All this has some truth to it. But here’s another overarching reason for Trump’s travails: As his campaign promises are getting translated into concrete policy specifics, Americans are recoiling from the results. What’s more, this process is unmasking the disconcerting levels of dishonesty, bad faith, and lack of concern for detail and procedure that are rotting away at the core of his agenda and approach to governing, all of which is plainly working against him.
The result has been a presidency lacking in significant victories, beset by major stumbles — including the downfall of the Republicans’ health-care bill and his travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries — and that is the target of litigation as a result of executive actions, especially related to the environment.
There are more potential roadblocks ahead. Already, congressional Republicans have balked at his proposed budget, and the White House’s insistence on increased spending for the military and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could imperil a spending bill needed to keep the government running past the end of April.
The health bill, the travel ban and the border wall are all either defeated or in deep trouble. As veteran Washington consultant David Gergen put it, Trump is “flailing because he doesn’t know where to find his natural allies.”
But if this is so, surely it is partly because the policies are so unpopular. Take health care: Many blame House conservatives for tanking the GOP bill. But more pragmatic GOP lawmakers also played a big role. They opposed it in large part because the policy was so regressive that even they could not abide by it. The plan would have cut over $800 billion in Medicaid spending — which would have left 14 million fewer on Medicaid, according to the Congressional Budget Office — while delivering an enormous tax cut for the rich.
A number of moderate House Republicans opposed the plan precisely because it would have taken coverage away from many of their poorer constituents. Moderates were also alienated in part because the plan was broadly unpopular: A recent poll found that only 17 percent of voters backed the plan, and core Trump voter groups opposed it. The Medicaid cuts were a key reason for that: 74 percent of voters, including 54 percent of Republicans, opposed its Medicaid cuts — revealing broad opposition to its most prominent mechanism for massively rolling back spending to cover poor people.
Trump alone is not to blame for this. Trump didn’t care about the details — he only wanted a “win” — and thus embraced Paul Ryan’s plan. It is Ryanism, which includes repeal-and-replace as part of the broader goal of shredding the safety net, that helped create this disaster. Ryan was supposed to craft a policy that would prove ideologically satisfactory to congressional Republicans and could also be sold through shrewd rhetorical subterfuge as a fulfillment of Trump’s promise of better health care for everybody at lower costs. The CBO blew all that up by unmasking its truly regressive nature and, in the process, the big policy lie at the core of Trump’s repeal-and-replace promise. The details ended up mattering.
Something similar is happening on the travel ban and border wall. The original travel ban, which was blocked by the courts, was the result of a laughably slapdash process that could not conceal its anti-Muslim animus. The new version was also put on hold, in part because Trump and his advisers themselves revealed that its true rationale and goals were very similar, thus making it just as vulnerable to legal challenges, even as its stated rationale has been undercut by Homeland Security’s own analysts. (The fact that there’s no serious rationale for it may help explain why it’s unpopular.) Meanwhile, the wall on the Mexican border may also stumble over one of Trump’s big lies. He claimed Mexico will pay for it, but now that Congress actually has to do so, Republicans are privately saying they don’t really want to fight for that spending. The fact that the wall is also very unpopular probably makes this easier for them.
Trump could still notch victories soon. Neil Gorsuch may be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Trump may get tax reform of some kind (including huge tax cuts for the rich). But other aspects of his agenda are still in doubt. Trump has signed executive orders rolling back our policies to fight climate change, but doing that will take years and is very unpopular, perhaps in part because it won’t actually restore coal jobs, as he has promised. Trump’s vow of infrastructure spending could prove popular, but we don’t know whether it will amount to anything more than a tax break and privatization scheme. Trump’s trade bluster is also colliding with the complexity of policy reality.
Why is Trump tanking? The bottom line is that the ongoing translation of Trump’s agenda into policy specifics is showing that major elements of it are unpopular, or unworkable because they are premised on lies, or both.
* SHOWDOWN THIS WEEK ON GORSUCH: CNN reports that Democrats probably won’t supply enough votes for Republicans to overcome the Democrats’ filibuster on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which may trigger GOP elimination of the filibuster:
With only three Democrats saying they will back the 49-year-old Coloradan, it’s increasingly likely Gorsuch can’t get the 60 votes he needs to overcome a Democratic filibuster. … Many senators are worried that the if Republicans weaken the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, in the same way Democrats did for all other presidential appointments in 2013, the chamber would be on a slippery slope and the filibuster for legislation could someday be diminished too.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that this week will end with confirmation of Gorsuch, one way or the other, which sounds like a threat to go nuclear.
* THE WHIP COUNT ON GORSUCH SO FAR: Politico tallies it up: All 52 Republican senators are set to support Gorsuch. Only three Democrats thus far will break with the Democrats’ filibuster; and 37 are supporting the filibuster. Eight are undecided:
Michael Bennet (Colo.)
Ben Cardin (Md.)
Chris Coons (Del.)
Dianne Feinstein (Calif.)
Angus King (Maine)
Patrick Leahy (Vt.)
Robert Menendez (N.J.)
Mark Warner (Va.)
Republicans need to get five of those to break the filibuster; Democrats need to get four of them to sustain it.
* TRUMP COUNTY IS UPSET AT HIS BUDGET CUTS: The New York Times reports on people in a poor Ohio county that went for Trump who are now upset that his budget cuts will eliminate a housing program that many relied on. As one local official says:
“Our county voted for President Trump, so I’m not sure they quite understand what is going to happen. I don’t think people realize how much we rely on these services. I don’t think people are making the connection between cutting the HUD funds and paving our streets or building new affordable housing.”
But as one local who relied on the program tells the Times, Trump will protect them from “people who are coming into this country who are trying to hurt us,” which is more important.
* TRUMP VOTERS WOULD GET HURT BY TRUMP’S BUDGET: The Post, meanwhile, talks to rural voters in Oklahoma who backed Trump and finds worry that his budget cuts would decimate multiple programs they depend on:
The president’s proposed budget would disproportionately harm the rural areas and small towns that were key to his unexpected win. Many red states like Oklahoma — where every single county went for Trump — are more reliant on the federal funds that Trump wants to cut than states that voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
No one could possibly have predicted this outcome.
* WHY TRUMP’S TRADE AGENDA TOTALLY FIZZLED: Paul Krugman runs through the reasons Trump’s blustery promises on trade are proving a bust, including the fact that trade is deeply interwoven into the economy and can’t be easily unwound by tariffs:
Reversing globalization now would produce [a] painful “Trump shock,” disrupting jobs and communities all over again … at a deep level Trumptrade is running into the same wall that caused Trumpcare to crash and burn. Mr. Trump came into office talking big, sure that his predecessors had messed everything up and he — he alone — could do far better. And millions of voters believed him.
It’s worth adding that if Trump does end up renegotiating our trade deals, it’s still possible he will do so in ways that favor corporations, not workers. That would shock you, wouldn’t it?
* EVERYONE SHOULD WANT THE TRUTH ABOUT RUSSIAN MEDDLING: E.J. Dionne argues that all of us should want to get to the bottom of what Russia did to interfere in our election, which is sometimes derided these days as “McCarthyite”:
Shouldn’t everyone, left, right and center, be furious over Russia’s efforts to inject calumny and falsehood into the American political bloodstream? … It is not McCarthyite to ask why Trump has spoken with such warmth about a Russian autocrat or taken so many positions (on NATO and the European Union, for example) that can be fairly seen as more in line with Russia’s interests than our own.
Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: Trump and many congressional Republicans are frustrating efforts to obtain a full accounting into everything Russia did to undermine our democracy.
* AND JARED/IVANKA MUST RECUSE THEMSELVES: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have released disclosure reports showing they still are profiting from extensive holdings. A trio of ethics experts has a good piece in USA Today explaining why they must recuse themselves from policy debates that could create conflicts of interest:
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have so many potential conflicts of interest that if they abide by ethics laws and past White House practices, they won’t be able to advise the president on three of his top priorities: Trade, tax reform and Wall Street deregulation … Jared will need to recuse from many matters involving the financial services industry, including any steps to repeal the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. … They both will also have to recuse from any decisions about tax benefits for the real estate industry, and because the tax code is chock full of them, this will probably mean recusal from the entirety of tax reform.
It’ll be interesting to see if any congressional Republicans raise a peep about this.