Amid tumult at the White House, the Washington Examiner’s April Ponnuru notes: “If this is the honeymoon, prospects for the marriage between President Trump and congressional Republicans are bleak. We’re not even a month in and many Republicans are looking nervously for the nearest exit.” For that matter, it wasn’t much of a honeymoon from the outset.
The reality is probably less dramatic. Oddly, the best recent historical precedents for the Trump/GOP relationship Administration may come from the Democrats.
One possibility for the GOP can be called The Bill Clinton scenario. Bill ran for President as a heterodox, more centrist figure in his party. He won despite the way he treated women. Nicknamed “Slick Willie” as far back as 1980, his relationship with the truth was as casual as his relationship with the opposite sex. He lied about things large and small; parsing his lawyerly evasions became a cottage industry for his critics.
Bill Clinton, his Administration, and his associates became mired in a swamp of scandals of varying import. He was impeached (though not convicted) and disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas and in front of the Supreme Court over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Despite the scandals, triangulations and losing control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years (indeed, perhaps in part because of the latter), Democrats ultimately stood by their man like Tammy Wynette.
Democrats debated whether Clinton’s success was due to his more centrist positions on welfare and crime or his support for the party’s legacy achievements. It was probably some of both. Equally important or more so, the Information Revolution unleashed an economic boom. Plus, Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.
Bill Clinton, aside from changing the norms for a President in ways that paved the way for Trump, also provides a model by which Trump might succeed in keeping most Republicans and conservatives sufficiently onboard with his presidency. If Trump can balance traditional GOP policy priorities with some key Trumpian proposals — and continue to drive all the right enemies crazy — he can probably maintain a successful political operation, even if he runs into scandals.
Of course, for the Clinton scenario to work, the economic and foreign policy fundamentals will have to also go well for Trump – or appear to, at a minimum.
A worse-case scenario might be called the Jimmy Carter scenario. Here was an earlier heterodox figure in the modern Democratic Party. Far more centrist than the Dems’ 1972 nominee, Sen. George McGovern, he also won in part because he lacked the sort of moral flaws so evident in Richard Nixon.
Yet the Carter Administration failed in part because he did not work or play well with a Congress of his own party. The obvious collapse of old school Keynesian economics and Carter’s foreign policy humiliations were almost certainly bigger factors, but the lack of support for Carter in Congress and the Democratic Party more broadly – culminating in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge – was highly damaging to his prospects for reelection.
Wherever Trump and the GOP wind up on this spectrum, note that Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox. The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.
The heterodox Trump administration — or some of it — seems interested in trying to remake the GOP into a more nationalist or populist party. But trying to change your spouse after the wedding ceremony seems….tricky, at best. Of course, that also might be instructive to anyone in the GOP still hoping that Trump is going to make that long-rumored pivot someday.
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