The chatter surrounding the Trump-Schumer-Pelosi debt ceiling bill has me thinking again about whether Pres. Trump more accurately reflects the GOP coalition than the Congressional party does. I’ve previously called this sort of analysis a questionable exercise, but this most recent turn of events causes me to think about the issue from a different angle.
On a surface level, we should expect a President to have broader appeal than some Senator or Representative. After all, to become the GOP nominee, someone like Trump had to campaign and win primaries and caucuses in states all over the country.
Although Trump arguably had the weakest level of internal support of any GOP nominee of the modern era, he nevertheless had to represent a certain breadth of the electorate that his rivals were unable to match. In this sense, Trump may more accurately reflect the lowest common denominator of GOP support in a way the typical legislator does not.
OTOH, Congress is a co-equal branch of government and arguably superior, insofar as Congress can remove a President from office, but not vice versa. The GOP caucus arguably represents the GOP coalition in a more complex and nuanced way.
It could be said that this collective better represents the GOP coalition, but in a way that contributes to the dysfunction we see in the GOP caucuses today. As I noted yesterday, it can be difficult to manage a diverse, yet narrow majority (and it’s not something the GOP’s Congressional leaders have excelled at since the days of Newt Gingrich, tbh).
After 80-100 years of progressive drift in America, the general assumption is that despite being co-equal branches, the President represents and sets his party’s agenda in Congress. In the current intraparty debate over Trump’s relationship with Congress, Trump’s supporters believe there is no reason to depart from this common, progressive understanding of American government (while insisting that Trump defines conservatism; go figure).
The problem with this position is that Trump — contra the fears of some of his biggest critics — is unable or unwilling to assume the mantle of the modern Imperial Presidency when it comes to his duties as head of government.
Past executives from both parties had White House policy shops issuing guidance and working with Congress in drafting legislative proposals. Part Presidents became engaged in the details of policy to assist them in building the coalitions, inside and outside the Capitol, needed to pass their agenda items.
Donald Trump, as you may have noticed, is a different animal. His administration has largely “delegated” the business of legislating to Congress, which is as it should be under our Constitution, but not as it has been under the “living” Constitution progressives have accustomed the citizenry to accept.
Conversely, Congress has seemed unable or unwilling to fill the power vacuum created by Trump’s departure from this aspect of the Imperial Presidency. Trump’s supporters want to argue that this represents Congressional leaders seeking to thwart Trump’s agenda. The history of the past two years, however, instructs us that the GOP institutionally has been generally uninterested in resisting Trump.
But when the President is generally uninterested in telling Congress what to do or how to do it — and make no mistake, Trump hasn’t even pursued The Wall™ with great zeal to date — a Congress that stumbles to enact its own agenda items is not particularly shocking.
The real question may be: When Trump refuses to do the expected things necessary to pursue his supposed agenda, does it matter whether that agenda is closer to where GOP voters are versus a co-equal branch of government with its own claim to represent GOP voters?
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