Weak Trump, Weak GOP

While I still believe people flipped for last week’s Peggy Noonan column on Pres. Trump’s weakness in large part because she’s the one who wrote it, I will add with hindsight that it also had virality because it was perfectly timed to the conventional wisdom coalescing around the idea that Trump is weak.

In addition to Noonan’s column, you had Ross Douthat and the Commentary podcast comparing Trump to Jimmy Carter.  Although I was writing about a possible Carter scenario back in February, I won’t be taking any credit yet.  Too many political obituaries were written for Trump before he became the GOP’s nominee, let alone President, for me to write him off six months into his term.

Nevertheless, the context in which I first raised a possible Carter scenario — and the context for much of the last few days’ criticism — is Trump’s dysfunctional relationship with the Republican Congress.  Quite a bit of it blames Trump for the current failed state of healthcare reform.  Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman argues it is manifest in the degree to which the GOP Congress is standing up to Trump (tho it will never be enough for the Left).

Indeed, some of it may even be manifest in the degree to which the Trump administration ignores Trump, at least on his stray voltage rants.  (I was writing about this problem back in May.)

Today, however, I want to stick with the Congressional piece a bit and defend Trump a little bit.

For example, to argue that the GOP Congress is flailing on healthcare reform due to Trump’s lack of leadership is, imho, an exaggeration.  But assuming the claim is true, the premise of that argument must be that the GOP Congress is weak and unable to exercise its Constitutional function absent assistance from another (arguably inferior) branch of government.

And if you are generous to the GOP Congress by noting that the party has relatively thin margins in both chambers, and that satisfying both moderates and conservatives was always going to be difficult, I’ll agree.  But I will add that this is also evidence of the relative weakness of the the Republican majorities in both chambers.

In total fairness to the GOP, the state parties have done pretty well on policy in recent years.  Even the Congressional GOP was at least able to check Pres. Obama on a number of fronts (if not all of them) after winning the majority in 2010.  Indeed, by various measures of office-holding, the GOP hasn’t been as strong as it is today since 1928.

Accordingly, it seems strange to claim the GOP is weak.  But the Congressional GOP certainly is weak.  And if you were reading this super-carefully, you may have noticed that its weakness is a function of its strength.

The “strength” of the GOP is a function of becoming the “big tent” it long sought to be.  But as the GOP coalition has expanded, it has lost a degree of focus or consensus.  This is one reason why national political coalitions are difficult to sustain over time.

Moreover, the nature of the GOP itself makes this task more difficult than it is for the Democrats.  Consider that with respect to the central political argument in America since its birth — the proper relationship of the government to its citizens — the Democrats, with very few exceptions, are agreed on the position that the federal government in particular should be taking a larger and more intrusive role in people’s lives.  Even the Dems’ so-called moderates believe this; they mostly disagree over matters of timing.

The GOP, in contrast (and contrary to the Left’s stereotype), does not believe in a lack of government, not even in a lack of federal government.  Indeed, even libertarians will concede some role for government.

Republican conservatives make at least a similar concession, and often believe in a strong role for the federal government regarding certain core functions within its competence (e.g., national defense).  Some of them would like to actively shrink the federal government.  OTOH, the GOP also has plenty of Burkean conservatives and Reagan Democrats who were at least resigned to New Deal progressivism; they have been followed by years of white working class voters who are at least resigned, and often fully invested in, Great Society entitlements.  On the central political argument in America, Republicans are more split than Democrats.

In this regard, Trump’s weakness is not causing the Congressional GOP to be weak.  Rather, Trump is a symptom of the national party’s weakness.  Douthat recognizes that Trump, like Carter, reflects the internal rot of a political party.  He also seems to think that the problem is that the GOP is moribund at the policy level.  The real problem is that the GOP is moribund at the policy level because of the difficulty in gaining consensus in a party with inherent weaknesses in national policy-making.

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