The distractions of Donald J. Trump are creating opportunity as much as crisis for Capitol Hill Republicans — even if they’re unwilling to seize it.
By now, it’s conventional wisdom in Washington that the Trump agonistes have frustrated the GOP agenda. But like much considered and collective inside-the-Beltway thought, that argument is pure horse hockey.
Republicans have floundered on health care, foundered on tax reform and struggled to align on budget priorities because they simply haven’t put forward plans in any of those areas that can win the support of the entirety of the party, much less bipartisan coalitions that would win the approval of the majority of Americans.
That is, Trump is an excuse — not the cause — for Republican dysfunction in the early months of GOP hegemony.
Sure, the cacophonous and contradictory messaging from the president on substance has, at times, made it difficult to identify the GOP’s mission. And, no doubt, the federal investigation into President Trump is more than a trifling distraction for both the White House and Republicans in Congress. The Washington Post’s Friday report that a person close to Trump is now a subject of interest in the Justice Department’s Russia probe will surely bolster the claims of those who would like to shift blame from Capitol Hill to the White House.
The hard truth is that Republicans in Congress have been wasting an opportunity to create and drive the Trump agenda, and, unless they can figure out how to legislate soon, they figure to spend the rest of the time between now and the midterm elections pointing index fingers at the White House from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue rather than bumping fists over what they’ve delivered for the American people.
The best thing they could do to distract from the billowing smoke emanating from an immolating Trump West Wing is to force the media and public to pay attention to substantive achievement. But as long as they can’t all get along — and, I believe, as long as they’re unwilling to reach across the aisle a little bit — there will be nothing to report of Republican control of Washington but the gory details of a sprawling investigation into Trump that starts with campaign ties to Russia and may end with obstruction of justice charges.
Wouldn’t Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell be seen as heroes for their party and their country if they helped guide the nation through this turmoil and did it in bipartisan fashion? Wouldn’t they be more likely to preserve their majorities if Congress works while the administration disintegrates? Don’t they, by now, want to be seen as separate, distinct from and more capable than Trump?
A few easy wins
If so, they’ll have to give up something to get something. Democrats have no need to throw them a lifeline. But as Bill Clinton reached across the center line during rocky periods of his presidency, Republicans would surely find willing partners in congressional Democrats if they put forward a health care plan that fixed Obamacare rather than gutted its aid to poor and working families in the name of tax cuts for investors. The specifics of a tax reform plan that lowers corporate rates and captures more overseas income are negotiable.
If Trump survives the federal investigation, he and his colleagues would prosper for having produced bipartisan legislative deals. If he goes down to removal from office or resignation, Republicans in Congress would be able to show they deserve to remain in power. It seems like a no-brainer for the GOP to recalibrate and put some points on the board.
So far, the only thing Republicans have been able to agree on is repealing Obama-era regulations. That’s hardly a vision for the future that will recommend them to the electorate in a year and a half. Will they run on a bridge to the 20th century?
In the short term, it might be advantageous to pin the failures of Congress on Trump’s troubles. But in the long term, it just means Republicans can’t get work done in the midst of a political crisis.
Legislating would subtly distance the Hill GOP from the White House without forcing Republicans to call out the leader of their party. And it would allow them to deflect some of the questions about the Trump-Russia probe by pointing to work being done on issues that matter to the everyday lives of the American people.
Republicans on the Hill should be desperate to strike some deals not only with each other but with at least a handful of Democrats. That’s the best bet for keeping control of both houses of Congress while the president of their party is in deep political peril. The risks of inaction are clear, and the only cost is ideological purity.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.