In the aftermath of the GOP health care debacle came a revealing act of candor. House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted that his party, which controls the House, Senate and White House, is not yet a “governing party” because it could not “get 216 people to agree with each other on how we do things.”
Since the rise of the tea party, there have been perhaps 30 members of the House – the Freedom Caucus – who have been consistently unwilling to vote for center-right policy because their anti-government convictions are unappeasable. Incited and abetted by conservative media, they made Speaker John Boehner’s life a living hell, and have greeted Ryan with sharpened pitchforks.
So a party at the peak of its political fortunes is utterly paralyzed. A caucus in control of everything is itself uncontrollable.
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Heading into the 2016 election, Republicans knew that this problem – the tea party predicament, the Freedom Caucus conundrum, the Boehner bog – had to be dealt with. The GOP needed a large and capable leader who could either unite the whole party (at least temporarily) with a bold, unifying conservative vision, or peel off some centrist Democratic support with innovative policy. They needed an above-average president.
What they got is unimaginably distant from any of these goals. They got a leader who is empty – devoid of even moderately detailed preferences and incapable of using policy details in the course of political persuasion.
Republicans got a leader who is impatient and easily distracted – by cable news on the Russian scandal or by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s TV ratings. The content and consequences of his tweets are bad enough; worse is the disordered personality traits they reveal – vindictiveness, shallowness and lack of discipline. Trump spent a total of 18 days on his health care bill before demanding a vote. And he made no speech to the nation to advance his ideas – as every other recent president would have done.
Republicans got an administration that is incompetent. The White House policy process has been erratic and disorganized. It has failed to provide expert analysis and assistance to Congress and did little to effectively advocate the president’s policy in ways that unite the party.
Republicans got an administration that is morally small. Trump’s proposed budget would require massive cuts in disease research, global development and agricultural programs – just as a famine gathers a hideous strength. The proposed budget practices random acts of gratuitous cruelty.
This is a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party.
It can hardly surprise us. The president had no governing experience. He has no detailed governing agenda. He trashed everyone who tried to govern in the past. And we somehow expect him to overcome the complex governing task presented by the Freedom Caucus?
His new strategy is to go on the attack: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” So Trump will campaign against tea party conservatives? Attack them on conservative radio? Raise money for their moderate opponents? If he does, then the GOP civil war will reach a new stage of bitterness, with legislative progress postponed until a core faction of the party is intimidated or defeated.
Some Republicans choose to comfort themselves by repeating the mantra: “Gorsuch, Gorsuch, Gorsuch.” But that does nothing to change Trump’s stunningly high disapproval ratings. Or the stunning rebuke by the FBI director concerning his claim of being wiretapped by Barack Obama. Or the stunning rejection of his central campaign promise by elements of his own party. Or his stunning ignorance of the basics of policy and leadership.
And all this has come in the course of the president’s political honeymoon. What, for goodness’ sake, will the marriage be like?
It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited.
Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt – a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern.
And what, in the short term, can be done about it? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.