We’re nearing the 100-day mark and this president has little to show for his time in office.
By Seth Masket
President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena on December 9th, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The first hundred days of Donald Trump’s presidency are nearly over, and, compared to his predecessors, he has shockingly few legislative achievements to brag on. While his own performance as president can’t be ignored as a culprit, there are larger structural impediments at work here.
The failure of the American Health Care Act brings into sharp focus the problems that both Trump and congressional Republicans face right now. (I and several of my colleagues at the Mischiefs of Faction discussed this in our recent podcast.)
It’s difficult to overstate the tragedy of this moment from the Republican perspective. Unified party government is increasingly rare at the national level — Republicans had it sporadically in the last decade, which was the first time they’d had it since a brief period during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Republicans have been running for office since 2010 vowing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act as their first priority, and congressional Republicans practiced such repeals dozens of times during Barack Obama’s presidency. They had years to craft the policy shift, and then they finally had the majorities to write it into law and a president who would sign it. And it couldn’t even pass the House floor. This was a very basic test for a governing party and it failed spectacularly.
In part, this was due to incredibly poor management by Speaker Paul Ryan. He was pushing a vision of health reform that would have taken away a benefit enjoyed by millions of Americans, and it’s generally difficult to find a majority of members of Congress willing to go on record in favor of such a scheme. That he pushed an unpopular bill without majority support so close to a floor vote only to pull it at the last minute was really a stunning bellyflop of lawmaking.
The one notable legislative success of the Trump administration’s first hundred days was a person sent by the White House, rather than a bill formulated in a chamber that’s hostile to democratic lawmaking procedures.
In part, the failure was due to Trump’s very hands-off approach to policymaking. He urged Republican members of Congress to support a plan that was essentially the opposite of what he’d promised prior to becoming president — universal coverage paid for by the federal government. He displayed no real knowledge of the legislation he was championing yet nonetheless threatened Republicans considering voting against it. So to some extent, we could chalk this up to key elected officials being inexperienced and just plain bad at the job of lawmaking.
I’m tempted to join in on this legishaming. But even a much more experienced and skilled set of party leaders might still have failed to produce any new laws in this environment. The real problem right now is the Republican Party, which, at least at the national level, has transformed itself over the past few decades into an organization fundamentally hostile to the concept of democratic governance.
The Freedom Caucus, for one thing, commands enough votes to be pivotal to party-line governing; the Republican majority can’t pass anything without it in this polarized environment. But Freedom Caucus members showed themselves, during the 2013 budget shutdown and at other times, to be in complete opposition to the idea of compromise. They and many of their Republican colleagues have run for office vowing to oppose what they see as runaway federal spending and government encroachment on liberty, and they often took office by portraying compromising incumbents as just shy of traitors. Their intransigence isn’t a personality defect — it’s what they were elected to do.
Second, really since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential run, Republicans have chosen to run for office by claiming that government is itself the problem requiring a solution. This was a rhetorically brilliant innovation, but it has become a significant stumbling block in statecraft. Republican officeholders a few decades ago were generally satisfied when they could constrain government spending and resist further federal encroachments into areas usually handled by the states. Today, that’s not nearly enough. The whole enterprise of governing is seen as inherently corrupt.
Finally, as Trump’s nomination and election has made quite clear, there has, for several decades now, been a substantial ideological gap between the Republican Party’s leadership and its voters. Rolling back the social safety net might appeal to many ideological leaders, but it’s a loser when rank and file voters get to weigh in. Thanks to the party’s failure to coordinate around a more traditional conservative candidate, they ended up with a presidential nominee who was probably a lot closer to the party’s base than he was to the party’s leadership on many key issues.
Now, party leaders certainly don’t have to closely reflect what their core voters want. But it can create a governing crisis when those differences become too great. This gap was brought into relief when Ryan and other party leaders pressed a plan that was clearly hostile to what many rank and file Republicans wanted.
The Republican Party, although enjoying control over a great many governments within the United States right now, is facing a significant crisis in that it can’t translate its ideals into law. The one notable legislative success of the Trump administration’s first hundred days — Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch — is the exception that proves the rule. He was a person sent by the White House, rather than a bill formulated in a chamber that’s hostile to democratic lawmaking procedures. There was no negotiation over who he was; it was simply a matter of a yes or no vote.
Writing laws isn’t nearly that easy. Even if Ryan and Trump get better at it, they have significant hurdles to overcome.