When the Republican health care bill collapsed last week, I thought it might be a blessing in disguise. The other two likely options―having it pass the House only to die a slower death in the Senate, or passing a bad bill, only to see premiums increase and fewer people be covered―would have been worse.
Besides, Bill Clinton showed that you could overcome a clumsy start to a presidency. True, his bad start (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “Travelgate,” Hillarycare, etc.) cost Democrats brutally in the 1994 mid-terms, but Clinton eventually adapted and overcame. He changed.
Clinton was better suited (temperament-wise) to play the moderate New Democrat than he was the liberal revolutionary—and so he was uniquely prepared to offer the public that for which they were clamoring.
Clinton, it turned out, had saved his authentic brand identity for his “Plan B.” The same could be true of Donald Trump. A reinvention could mean moving to the center—which also happens to align with embracing his core political instincts.
Trump theoretically could re-seize control of his more populist agenda (“Let Trump Be Trump!”) and turn things around, but this would require a tacit admission that he might have made a mistake. The question is whether Trump is capable of this sort of self-awareness.
Even if he is, the changing dynamics of American politics means this acknowledgement won’t be easy.
Since the days of Bill Clinton, Members of Congress have been liberated by outside groups (which fund them), cable news (which rewards them with attention), and the Internet (which does both). The rewards and punishment dished out to keep them in line have been weakened as the political parties (along with other institutions) have declined. And the redrawing of congressional lines has created more “safe” seats than it has in the past—a factor that also liberates politicians from external pressure to fall in line.
Meanwhile, in almost record speed, we’ve seen that you can cross the president and congressional leadership—and live to tell about it.
In the House, Republicans can (depending on absences) afford to lose 22 votes and still pass something on a party-line vote. This means that if either the conservative Freedom Caucus or the moderate Tuesday Group stick together in their opposition, no vote can pass. This gives both groups tremendous power to shape legislation, but what if the policies they deem essential to supporting a given bill become mutually exclusive?
Let’s take, for example, the issue of tax reform. To pay for the tax cuts, House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to include a Border Adjusted Tax. (We can argue later about how the CBO should score a bill dynamically, considering that corporate tax cuts could grow the economy and generate more revenue.) One could easily conceive that this tax would be a deal-breaker for some in the Freedom Caucus.
Complicating matters is the notion that Trump could take a page from the Bill Clinton playbook and “triangulate” seems increasingly unlikely. Even if Trump attempts to woo Democrats in good faith, their incentives now almost completely favor obstruction.
For one thing, Trump looks wounded. Why would anyone, especially a Democrat, want to throw him a lifeline? For another, Trump’s rhetoric and behavior have infuriated the Democratic base, who now want to do to him what (they believe) Republicans did to Barack Obama.
Obstructionism is the flavor of the day, and any Democrat who works with Trump—even on something that ostensibly would benefit liberal interest groups or Democratic constituencies (say, for example, spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure)—risks drawing the ire of their base.
Perhaps the most dangerous form of obstructionism may occur on April 28, when funding for the government is set to run out. There is hope that cooler heads will prevail, but a similar dynamic—conservatives refusing to support increasing the limit and Democrats refusing to come to Trump’s rescue (unless he accedes to their demands when it comes to things like funding a border wall)—could make this a very high-stakes showdown.
The irony is that Trump has worked harder than almost any politician in recent memory to cultivate a tough image of a man you would not want to cross. Yet he now finds himself in a weakened position. Other presidents have overcome bigger challenges, so it’s still a possibility.
After losing the 1980 Arkansas gubernatorial race, Clinton ate humble pie and reinvented himself. He did the same thing after losing the 1994 midterms. But humble pie is a dish that is conspicuously absent at Trump Tower (or at the White House cafeteria, for that matter).