If President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans indeed separate, perhaps the neighbors shouldn’t be surprised. Their relationship has struggled from the start.
Trump flirted with Democrats for years before pummeling 2016 Republican campaign rivals and putative allies alike on the way to the White House. The result has been the most barren partnership in modern presidential history.
Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election propelled a political realignment, every new president has scored a major early legislative victory except one. That’s Trump – despite the advantage of full Republican control of Congress. And that failure has left him sounding increasingly like a political independent.
By this point in 1981, Reagan had won enactment of his signature tax and budget cuts; he signed them into law on August 13. By this point in 1989, President George H.W. Bush had already signed legislation responding to the savings and loan crisis.
In 2009, Barack Obama had long since enacted economic stimulus legislation in response to recession and financial crisis. House Democratic leaders had unveiled their version of the Affordable Care Act on the way to House passage in November and passage of a different version in the Senate the next month.
Trump has not only failed to win repeal of what became Obamacare, but he has made no progress at all on other top legislative objectives. The White House has not even proposed either tax reform details or an infrastructure plan.
Republicans have already shown diminished patience with Trump’s behavior – by turning toward bipartisan health care legislation, for example, despite the president’s demand that they try again to repeal Obamacare. They’ve warned Trump not to fire special counsel Robert Mueller as the former FBI director’s investigation into Russia’s election interference poses mounting danger to the White House.
On tax cuts, Republicans face the same internal divisions that sunk them on health care. With 2018 midterm elections looming, however, Trump’s criticism of McConnell and others won’t preclude action.
“The survival instinct on both sides is going to drive them to do something on taxes,” says former GOP lawmaker Vin Weber.
But turning on his allies now curbs his ability to shape the direction of an effort that’s dauntingly complex under the best of circumstance.
“Trump has now forced many GOP senators to choose: Trump or McConnell,” observes Steve Bell, a former top GOP Senate aide now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “McConnell, if he wishes to challenge Trump on a major measure, will win a majority of the GOP caucus.”
The outlook for what Trump calls “a very big infrastructure bill” is darker. Republicans, who don’t share Trump’s zeal for infrastructure spending, are growing ever-less likely to do him favors. Democrats, who do share that zeal, have no incentive to help a president who is uniformly loathed by their base and has sub-40 percent approval ratings as a result.
“They’re nowhere on infrastructure,” says former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who recently dined with Trump Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, McConnell. One self-inflicted wound: the president has failed to nominate anyone for 11 of 18 top political jobs at the Transportation Department, just as he has failed to nominate anyone for more than 60 percent of top jobs requiring Senate confirmation throughout the executive branch.
History shows a new president’s best opportunity for big victories lies in his opening months, when the flush of electoral victory maximizes White House power. Even Lyndon Johnson, after his landslide 1964 election gave him robust Democratic Congressional majorities, pressed aides to act quickly for fear that their clout would soon dwindle.
“He said you may think you have four years,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss recalls, recounting LBJ’s message to his staff. “It basically has to be within the first six months.”
He was right on both counts.
By the first week of August 1965, Johnson had created Medicare and Medicaid and signed the Voting Rights Act. And then his clout began shrinking amid discord at home and the Vietnam quagmire abroad.
In the 1966 midterm elections, Johnson’s party lost 47 seats in the House and four Senate seats. Two years later, the president declined to seek re-election.