WASHINGTON – House Speaker Paul Ryan promised Obamacare repeal, funding for the wall and tax reform, all by the end of August. For the GOP, it is now September, both literally and metaphorically.
In the spring of their hopes, Republican leaders placed a bet – which seemed reasonable at the time – that they could contain President Trump and pass legislation despite him. This required looking away from the uglier aspects of Trump's appeal – his Twitter transgressions, his appallingly frenzied rallies, his rule by ridicule. All this was worth swallowing because Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would pass their conservative agenda.
The wager was large and lost. The attempt to revive a health care alternative in the Senate seems halfhearted and doomed by the same ideological dynamics that killed the legislation the first time. Republican enthusiasm for the Mexican border wall is limited by the fact that it is among the most wasteful, impractical and useless ideas ever spouted by an American president. And ambitious tax reform has been tabled in favor of a few tax cuts that are likely to reaffirm public impressions that the "P" in GOP stands for plutocracy.
In the process, Republican leaders have been made to look hapless and pathetic, not least because Trump has taken to taunting them. A president incapable of legislative leadership mocks the ineffectiveness of Republican legislators, publicly humiliates them on the debt limit deal, then revels in the (very temporary) friendship of "Chuck and Nancy" – Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi.
Those Republicans who believe that Trump is being cynical, disloyal or politically calculating continue to misunderstand the man. The president has no discernible political philosophy or strong policy views to betray. His leadership consists mainly of instincts, reflexes and prejudices, which often have nothing to do with self-interest. He has a genius for fame, which usually involves attention-attracting unpredictability and transgressiveness. Trump reads events moment by moment, making him a cork on the waves of cable coverage. Any choice he makes is correct by definition, because he has made it. And any person – on his staff or on Capitol Hill – who does not precisely mimic his political gyrations is disloyal and should be punished.
Most public officials have never worked with anyone like this before. Among other things, it means that any vocal conviction politician – any leader, such as Sen. John McCain, who regularly heeds the whisper of duty and conscience – will be Trump's enemy. With a little patience.
What have Republican leaders who bet the other way – on accommodation – lost in the process?
The wager has been a disaster in the realm of policy. During legislative debates on issues such as health care, Trump has been erratic, unfocused, impatient and frighteningly ignorant. His White House policy staff – some of whom are responsible and talented – try to work with Capitol Hill, but always under the threat that their efforts will be destroyed by a tweet. Congressional Republicans see the White House as a basket case, don't think that any administration official speaks authoritatively for the president and increasingly fear entering the midterm elections entirely naked of accomplishment.
The wager has been a disaster in the realm of politics. The president takes it as an accomplishment to secure the support of about 35 percent of the public. This leaves Republicans in the worst of political worlds, where the intensity of Trump's base is increased by words and policies that alienate the majority – making Trump a powerful force within the party and a scary, galvanizing figure beyond it. The damage is broad, profound and generational. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll recorded 26 percent approval for the president among those aged 18 to 34.
The wager has been a moral disaster. News accounts following Trump's betrayal of Republican leaders on the debt limit reported them to be "livid." What does it tell us about Republican politicians that they were livid about a three-month debt limit extension but not so much about misogyny, nativism and flirtation with racism? Or maybe they were, but still thought the wager might work. Such lack of wisdom and proportion is an indictment as well.
All Republican efforts – at least in the traditional wing of the party – must now be bent toward one, difficult end: Establishing a GOP identity apart from Trump. And that will require Republican leaders to cease being complicit in their own humiliation and irrelevance.