OPINION — Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” — which might better have been called, Hunter Thompson-style, “Fear and Loathing in the White House” — is filled with revealing anecdotes that have gotten overlooked amid the incessant rounds of TV interviews and cable news panels.
One of my favorites comes from the early days of John Kelly’s White House tenure, as the new chief of staff briefly labored under the illusion that he could tame the erratic president.
In August 2017, Kelly and soon-to-be-disgraced staff secretary Rob Porter concocted a system under which all presidential actions required not only a meeting but also a “decision memo” signed by Donald J. Trump. As Woodward writes, with a small flicker of whimsy unusual in his police-blotter prose, “Trump loved signing. It meant he was doing things, and he had an up-and-down penmanship that looked authoritative in black Magic Marker.”
This is not a portrait of any prior president of any party or any ideology. Rather, it suggests the storybook king in a poem for children by A.A. Milne who is “much too busy a-signing things” to notice Christopher Robin peering up at the windows of Buckingham Palace.
In Woodward’s telling, there is a child-like quality to many of the characters in the White House, from Kelly and his constant, Cowardly Lion empty threats about quitting to Mike Pence, who often resembles a skittish forest creature in “Bambi.” There is something dead-on about Woodward’s portrayal of the vice president: “As usual, Pence was staying out of the way. He didn’t want to be tweeted about or called an idiot.”
What is missing in long stretches of Woodward’s book is any sense that Congress is a co-equal branch of government.
Sure, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell get occasional walk-on roles when the topic turns to the tax bill, and there is a brief anecdote about Steve Bannon plotting to replace the Senate majority leader with Lindsey Graham. But for the most part, the Republican Congress displays the moxie of Mike Pence on a particularly timorous day.
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Replying to a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper about leaving the Republican Party, the first-term Nebraska senator said, “I probably think about it every morning when I wake up and I figure out, ‘Why am I flying away from Nebraska to go to D.C. this week. Are we going to get real stuff done?’ So I’m committed to the party of Lincoln and Reagan as long as there’s a chance to reform it.”
Sasse, who has an orthodox Republican voting record on everything from taxes to Obamacare to the confirmation of federal judges, holds the potential to be a pivotal figure in the Senate in 2019.
With John McCain dead and Trump critics like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker not running for re-election, Sasse may become, by default, the closest Senate version of a never-Trump Republican. Susan Collins might have vied for that honor, but since Trump’s inauguration, she has rarely displayed the flinty independence (her vote to retain Obamacare aside) of her 1950s Maine GOP predecessor, Margaret Chase Smith.
What gives relevance to Sasse’s morning musings about party loyalty is the suddenly realistic chance of an evenly divided Senate in 2019. Even Mitch McConnell admitted that the Republicans are in “a knife fight in an alley” to retain GOP seats in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee. And McConnell conceded that Ted Cruz (perhaps the least likable senator) faces a “competitive” race in Texas.
Sure, with the Democrats confronting the most daunting Senate map in modern memory (Republicans hold only 9 of the 35 seats on the ballot in November), the GOP has opportunities for pickups from Florida to Montana. But it doesn’t take much jiggering with the map (say, the Democrats win in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee, while the GOP prevails in Missouri and North Dakota) to create a 50-50 Senate.
Asleep at the switch
Then would come the true test of Sasse’s independence.
Would he be just a Sunday talk-show rebel, retreating to the predictable comforts of the Republican caucus when a Senate majority is on the line? Or would Sasse demonstrate the courage of his anti-Trump convictions by declaring himself an independent conservative who would not ratify continued GOP control of the upper chamber?
Most Senate party switches in modern times have been ideological journeys, like conservative Richard Shelbybecoming a Republican in 1994 and moderate Jim Jeffords abandoning the GOP to caucus as an independent with the Democrats in 2001 and thereby giving them a majority. (This is different from the current situation with Bernie Sanders and Angus King, who are “independents” in name only.)
But in theory, Sasse would not have to jettison his conservative viewpoints to give the Democrats an anti-Trump majority in the Senate. He would not be trying to help the Democrats legislate, but rather voting to reaffirm the Senate’s traditional role as part of an independent branch of government willing to endure tantrums emanating from the White House.
As for committee assignments, it is a safe bet that Chuck Schumer would be generous to Sasse in exchange for his bold gesture of independence.
Of course, all this is speculative.
But sooner or later, self-aware Republicans like Sasse will have to answer the question of what they were doing while a dangerously incompetent and viciously ill-tempered president was sitting in the Oval Office armed with a black Magic Marker for a-signing things.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.