The Myth of Benign Neglect

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Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (Credit: AP)

Back in the summer of 2016, in a more innocent age, I got an idea to write a post similar to this one. With the defeat of Donald Trump all but assured (Hillary was 10 points up at the time), it was easy to begin to look ahead to what would happen to the Republican party following its wild effort to destroy itself.

My thesis was that the Republicans could not simply ignore what Donald Trump represented: he had arisen out of a series of decisions made or abetted by the GOP. They owned him. He was one of them. He represented a real movement in their party and not an accident of history. Moving past Trump would therefore have required a great deal of soul-searching by a party that is notoriously opposed to that kind of healthy self-reflection (think about the effectiveness of their famous 2012 post-mortem). The Republicans could not, as would be so easy, treat Trump as an aberration and go back to business as usual.

Nearly six months into the Trump presidency, some version of this thesis still holds true. At its core, the issue concerns Republicans’ attempts to reconcile an unpopular Republican presidency with their own position as Republicans. Anticipating failure, members of Congress have at times sought to distance themselves from the President, only to come crawling back when he seems to be on the rise.

From the very beginning, congressional Republicans have tended to hope that Trump would be, in the best realistic case, simply a rubber-stamp president. The hope was and is that he would simply sign any Republican legislation that came his way and allow Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to set the agenda. And there were compelling reasons why this might have been the case. Partially, this dashed hope arose out of the perception of Trump, still held today, as unserious and not policy-oriented. During the campaign, moreover, he apparently planned to empower his vice presidential candidate with authority over domestic and foreign affairs, while he set about “making America great again.”

Trump, however, has proven unwilling to leave the politics to the politicians. Instead, he has been actively pursuing his own agenda — or that of whichever adviser he is listening to that day. (As an aside, when was the last time we heard the name Steve Bannon?)

Congressional Republicans hoped that, in addition to his unseriousness in the policy realm, Trump would stay away from difficult political questions because, well, his toxic reputation would make it more difficult to pass bills. His scandals, Republicans knew, would distract from policy discussion and destroy the political momentum needed to convince the public about the need for change.

That fact seems obvious to us now, but it represents an almost absurd shift in the relationship between the congressional Republicans and their president. To see the President as at best a neutral force in the signing of a bill (but usually as a negative one), is a very strange thing.

The basis for this unusual relationship is, at its heart, fairly narrow self-interest. Where Republicans certainly worry about the health of their legislative agenda, what they worry about most is the health of their fundraising balances and approval ratings. So Republicans have tried, at various times, to either bind Trump to them (when he’s popular) or distance themselves from him (when he’s not). This grotesque game of tag continues unabated.

The strange relationship has manifested itself most clearly in the healthcare debate, which is currently unresolved after McConnell’s attempt to rush the Senate bill through failed last week. Generally, the healthcare effort has failed due to a divided GOP caucus and a disastrously uncoordinated plan. The uncertainty over whether to call the initial House bill “Trumpcare” or “Ryancare” or “Republicare” is indicative of the confusion. The fact that Trump has at times celebrated the bill and at other moments denounced it only adds to the argument for a disconnect between the White House and GOP leadership. Far from being little more than a signature on the final bill, Trump has repeatedly proven to be a liability in the legislative process — exactly the situation Ryan and McConnell hoped to avoid.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Trump’s fair-weather cheerleading of the House bill obviously made an impression on McConnell, who shielded his own Senate bill from both the White House as well as the majority of the Republican party itself. Seeking to insulate the proposal not just from the negative effects of Trump but from the negative effects of debating the bill itself, he attempted to spring the bill on the public and vote on it as quickly as possible.

That attempt failed, thanks to the hilarious coalition of far-right (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul) and moderate (Susan Collins, Dean Heller) Republicans. But it does show that McConnell has learned two very important lessons from the House experience in the age of Trump.

First, he learned that discussing unpopular bills leads, not surprisingly, to unpopularity. An increasingly unpopular president, meanwhile, can only make matters worse. The more successful Democrats are at tying Republicans to Trump in the minds of voters (as they are arguably failing to do), the more success they will have.

But McConnell’s second lesson is perhaps the more worrisome and certainly the more devious. Though it’s difficult to say for certain, it seems likely that McConnell has decided to try to roll with the tweets, so to speak. By this I mean that rather than fight against the President by responding to what he says at 6am, he has sought to turn that distraction to his advantage.

The evolution of McConnell’s communications strategy is interesting in itself. During the campaign he was notoriously silent on any number of Trump scandals, often simply refusing to answer questions about them. But now, in addition to that, he may be seeking to use the scandals as cover for his own political work.

This idea is not new, but usually it is applied to the President himself. As I discussed briefly in a previous piece, Trump’s changing-the-channel strategy is unique because he seeks to replace one scandal with a different scandal. The result is remarkably effective: he sucks up all the outrage and attention and then just moves on the next thing, forcing everyone to forget about last week’s event.

McConnell seems to hope that everyone will forget about him, as well, and in doing so will allow him to quietly put all his long-desired projects into action. Healthcare, tax reform, immigration — they all could slide under the radar.

Probably not, though. I think that the idea of benign chaos is just as faulty as the Republicans previous hope for benign neglect. There is simply no bright line between the White House and the GOP caucus, as much as Ryan and McConnell might wish there were. It took only a single week and a CBO score for the Senate bill to crash. In 2016, most Republicans voted for Donald Trump, not for Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. They will do so again in 2018.

The troubled relationship between the President and his party will therefore continue so long as the Republicans see a sliver of an interest in keeping him around, or until the Democrats regain control of Congress. If Republicans continue to believe in some form of helpful Trump, be it benign neglect or benign distraction, significant change may be a long time in coming.

Little by little though, change there will be. Trump’s approval rate has been on a steady decline since his inauguration. The Republicans have yet to achieve a major legislative victory. The slow, cumulative build up of unpopularity will eventually, I hope and pray, hit home.

Once that happens, Republicans will have to face the facts that, despite their attempts to distance themselves from him, to make him into a rubber-stamp, to exploit his distractions, to manipulate his base — despite all that, he’s still a Republican and he’s the President. They own him, no matter what they say.

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