As President Donald Trump courts Republicans voicing opposition to his Obamacare replacement, it feels a lot like déjà vu for those of us old enough to remember the last time a Republican was in the White House.
For most of his tenure (until he nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court), conservatives gave President George W. Bush’s less-than-conservative policies a pass. It was a decision they came to regret—and now, some worry they are about to make the same mistake with Trump’s flawed Obamacare replacement.
“When conservatives followed Bush down that [big government] path, says prominent conservative Erick Erickson, who writes at The Resurgent, “they gave up their intellectual identity for cheerleading and it took them wandering in the wilderness to find their voice again.”
Conservative writer Philip Klein agrees. “The Tea Party, at its best, wasn’t merely about resisting Barack Obama,” said Klein. “It was a recognition that the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement should have pushed back harder against George W. Bush when he violated limited government principles by expanding the size and scope of federal power, most prominently with the Medicare prescription drug plan and the No Child Left Behind law.”
So why did Republicans go along with Bush? In his book Saving Freedom, Jim DeMint recounts a couple of times in the Oval Office when Bush personally appealed to him to change his votes during his tenure in the House of Representatives. The first instance involved an amendment DeMint was trying to attach to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. DeMint writes that the president “pled” with him to avoid a “blood bath”—the exact same terminology Trump is now using to scare conservative members into supporting this repeal-and-replace plan.
DeMint says he wouldn’t have backed down if the president had threatened him, but that he was “a sucker for gentle persuasion.” (On another occasion, DeMint stood firm when Bush attempted to strong-arm him into supporting Medicare Part D.)
The president said, “trust me,” and DeMint acquiesced to a deal he later regretted.
The point being that even Jim DeMint (Jim DeMint!) caved against his better judgment when a president from his own political party asked nicely.
Fast forward to today, when President Trump is headlining his very own charm offensive. Trump has dined with the Cruzes, and wooed recalcitrant conservative members with invitations to the White House for pizza and bowling. (Rose-colored glasses might be the party favor of choice at these soirees.) He also has dazzled conservative organizational heads (assuring them the plan will improve).
After the Republican health care plan was released, one conservative group took to Twitter to lambaste the plan. But, as David Catanese notes, after Tea Party Patriots’ co-founder Jenny Beth Martin was promptly summoned to the White House, her tone changed. “I can’t say enough how much Tea Party Patriots appreciated having a seat at the table with him,” she said. “We’ve never had that with the House and Senate leadership.”
We probably underestimate Trump’s ability to captivate in face-to-face situations. His celebrity status only magnifies the aura that being commander in chief already bestows. He also can use the trappings of his office to his advantage. And don’t forget, he is famously a master negotiator.
“I would be the first to admit that calls from the president will certainly influence members and to suggest otherwise would be to ignore politics,” confessed Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus.
Don’t be surprised if Trump charms the pants off of many of these people.
Of course, this is only one weapon in the considerable Trump arsenal. To paraphrase Patrick Swayze in Road House, President Trump will be nice until it’s time to not be nice. He has more than just juicy carrots―he also has plenty of big sticks.
In the states and home districts of many elected Republicans, Trump’s popularity outshines that of the local Congressman. There’s always the implied threat that he could personally visit their state and criticize them (see New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez), could mock them and attack them on Twitter, and could even help ensure that a more Trump-ish primary challenger emerges in time to sink their future political aspirations.
This last one is more than just implied. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports that “President Trump has told Republican leaders that he’s prepared to play hardball with congressional conservatives to pass the GOP healthcare bill, including by supporting the 2018 primary challengers of any Republican who votes against the bill.”
Other modern presidents (starting with Woodrow Wilson) have expended energy employing both wholesale and retail tactics to cajole Congress. But what makes George W. Bush and now Donald Trump so interesting is that much of their lobbying will be directed at trying to convince conservatives (for the good of the country… to save the presidency… ) to back some pretty un-conservative legislation.
So what’s the downside (if any) for conservatives in going along with Trump? After supporting Bush’s agenda in the 2000s, “[Republicans] lost power and had very little to show for it,” says Klein, recalling the post-Bush years, “and paved the way for Democrats’ landslide victories in 2006 and 2008 that allowed for the passage of Obamacare.”
Klein warns, “If conservatives go along with Trump as he proposes big government policies, from healthcare to infrastructure spending, they will come to regret it once again.”
In a world where memories are so short that a decade ago seems like an eternity, history may be about to repeat itself.