By Kelly McParland
Displayed with permission from National Post
When a candidate seeks office by running as a renegade opposed to both dominant parties, it shouldn’t come as a shock if he later has trouble finding friends in office. Still, it’s remarkable how quickly Donald Trump has managed to isolate himself in the White House, struggling to find allies among Republicans and Democrats alike. Rather than follow up his successful presidential bid with an effort to heal wounds and suss out supporters for his key initiatives, his 70 days in office have left him both loathed by Democrats – nothing new there – but also caught between two antagonistic wings of the party he nominally represents.
Several of the news organs Trump despises are suggesting he’s edging towards open war with the conservative Republican faction among which his biggest enthusiasts were located. While the White House may dismiss it as Fake News, the reports once again originate in Trump’s own words: specifically, another of the series of intemperate tweets that have consistently gotten him into trouble.
This time he launched an outburst at the Freedom Caucus, the powerful hardliners who were a regular thorn in the side of President Barack Obama, Democrats, moderate Republicans and the party’s entrenched ruling class. If anyone should be Trump people, you’d think, it’s the 30-40 the members of the Freedom Caucus, who make up a small minority of the 246 Republicans in the House of Representatives but have used it to produce influence well beyond their numbers. Instead, the president is threatening to help defeat those who face re-election in next year’s mid-terms.
Angry that the GOP effort to replace Obamacare failed, Trump demanded caucus leaders quit blocking his agenda or face his wrath. “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!” he tweeted. Days earlier he’d warned its leaders “I’m gonna come after you” if they let the Obamacare effort collapse. They ignored him, and it did collapse, a major defeat for the young presidency. A more disciplined president might recognize the loss as a signal that he needed to find some friends in Congress if he hoped to see any of his biggest projects turned into reality; instead Trump is engaged in a full-scale attack on the very people who, as one of their members tweeted back, “stood with u when others ran.”
At heart, the Freedom Caucus agrees with the basic principle of Trumpism: that Washington doesn’t work, that its members are denizens of a corrupt and dysfunctional swamp, and that only a revolution in its operations can save the republic. The dilemma for Trump is that conservatives largely built their base of support on fierce opposition to the establishment agenda, and an ability to gum it up to the point nothing gets done. Its hardline members think it’s better to maintain gridlock rather than allow bad government to continue.
Trump may agree with that, but as president he also needs to get things done. He made promises after all: to repeal Obamacare, to reshape the tax system, to build a wall … lots of things. If he can’t follow through, what’s the point of being president
Unfortunately, Trump’s inexperience and basic lack of understanding of government – and reluctance to learn – evidently included ignorance of the fact the president lacks the power of a chief executive, and is dependent on Congress to approve major initiatives. He can’t just wave his hand and order compliance. He needs the votes. But Democrats won’t vote with him out of principle, and moderate Republicans still recall how gleefully he savaged them during his election bid. He pretty much dedicated himself to chasing their sorry asses out of Washington.
Trump, as many predicted before his victory, suffers from having no real beliefs other than a drive to win at whatever cost
It was the Freedom Caucus that made life so unbearable for former Speaker John Boehner that he quit politics rather than put up with them. Paul Ryan, his replacement, has struggled just as mightily to work with them, a problem he foresaw when he initially resisted calls to take the job. It was Ryan who talked Trump into making the repeal of Obamacare his first priority; now that it’s turned into a disaster Trump is angry at Ryan, but also attacking the caucus. In other words, he’s fighting both sides while leaving himself isolated in the middle, a reflection of the crucial flaw that threatens his entire presidency. Any general will tell you a two-front war is not a recipe for success.
Trump, as many predicted before his victory, suffers from having no real beliefs other than a drive to win at whatever cost. It not only makes him highly unreliable, but anathema to other politicians who fear throwing in their lot with so unstable and unpredictable a president. It’s like putting your faith in a human IED (improvised explosive device) – who knows what bump will set it off, and who the victims may be?
The dilemma could easily threaten Trump’s entire presidency. His next major quest – a root-and-branch reform of the tax code, which the country badly needs – can’t possibly be achieved without significant compromises. But, as with the Obamacare initiative, moderate Republicans are likely to oppose extremes proposed by the Freedom Caucus, while conservatives are sure to work against any moderate measures they view as weak and insubstantial. It would take a skilled, subtle and diplomatic leader to bring the two together. Trump is the opposite of that, and has surrounded himself with aides and advisors who, so far, have favoured his scorched-earth approach to every issue.
It’s lonely at the top. Trump keeps making it even lonelier for himself. Maybe that’s why he holds so much sympathy for Russia, where they’re used to autocrats, and legislatures that know better than to object.