The Republican Party is more powerful than it’s been in more than a decade — and yet it has never seemed so weak.
Continuing chaos in the White House has been punctuated by the failure to deliver on the GOP’s seven-year pledge to overhaul Obamacare, and has many asking whether the party can capitalize on the sweeping victories it has achieved at the federal, state, and local levels.
Ahead of this week’s crucial Senate vote on health care, White House aides are already considering how to distance President Donald Trump from Congress and how to go after the Republicans who vote no — an idea the president seems fond of, according to people who have spoken to him. Several people said he plans to keep up the fight, no matter how this week’s vote goes.
He threatened Republicans on Twitter Sunday, saying they would face electoral consequences, and complained about his party not defending him — even though congressional Republicans are tired of defending him all the time.
“It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President," he wrote.
Meanwhile, those close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say they are frustrated that the president has shown little focus on his political agenda, particularly health care. Trump’s interview with the New York Times this week, for example, where he raged about Attorney General Jeff Sessions instead of promoting health care, was "political malpractice," one senior GOP aide said.
With control of both Congress and the White House — and yet no major legislative successes to point to — the Republican Party is finding itself stuck. A GOP Congress is frustrated with the president, and is unsure what will happen next in his daily West Wing drama. And Trump wants to sign legislation to show he is effective, and is frustrated bills are not on his desk.
A sudden White House shakeup on Friday made it even more clear that Trump, who campaigned as an outsider, is determined to govern as one, too — and not listen to McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan and other orthodox allies. The president expanded the power of the political neophytes in his administration, elevating the Manhattan hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci to White House communications director, at the cost of an operative – press secretary Sean Spicer, who announced his resignation on Friday — with years of Washington experience.
Spicer was not the only establishment casualty. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff who, at least in title holds one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, has been largely sidelined. Several West Wing aides suggested he should quit — and wondered Sunday why he doesn’t, according to White House aides and advisers.
The hire of Scaramucci as communications director was the biggest shot yet at Priebus, White House officials say, because he was opposed by Priebus, will report directly to Trump, and will be far more powerful than a normal communications director.
Let “the president be the president” is how Scaramucci described his new job in a Fox News interview on Sunday, an indication that the newly shaken up White House will be the same as the old — where, last Wednesday, the president scheduled and conducted a blockbuster interview with the New York Times with the assistance of a single communications aide, Hope Hicks, and without the knowledge of his senior advisers.
Even Trump supporters are beginning to express frustration with the constant chaos in the West Wing. “There are a lot of missed opportunities,” said Julius Krein, who founded the pro-Trump journal American Affairs in February in an effort to give the Trump movement some intellectual heft. “It has all degenerated into D.C. tempests and teapots,” Krein said, characterizing policies championed by the administration in the first six months as “mediocre conventional Republicanism with a lot more noise.”
While Trump has specialized in delivering self-inflicted blows, the Senate Republican conference is demonstrating that it, too, is capable of administering them.
Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) ground the legislative process to a halt this past week with their surprise announcement on Monday evening — made without informing either McConnell or the White House — that they would not support the bill.
But several people involved in the process, including three chiefs of staff to lawmakers poised to support the bill, complained that McConnell ran a process that was ultimately too secretive and kept a stranglehold on information. The Senate is expected to vote on Tuesday on a motion to proceed to a vote on the bill, though it’s not clear McConnell has the votes he needs to advance the measure.
News that John McCain (R-Ariz.) is suffering from an aggressive brain tumor cast a darker pall on the week’s events in a tragic and personal way.
The frustration at the inability deliver on the long-held promise of repealing Obamacare is also deepening the soul searching among Republicans.
Trump’s rise had already exacerbated a point of internal Republican debate between limited-government conservatives and the blue-collar voters Trump helped draw into the party, voters who were essential to the victories of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, and who George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney failed to connect with.
Many of the latter rely on government subsidies and programs than the former. “You have Republicans who run against Obamacare but actually like Obamacare,” Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito both represent states that Trump carried by sizable margins, but that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare and have large populations afflicted by the opioid epidemic; both expressed reservations about the Senate bill. Vice President Mike Pence spent time over the weekend with Portman in Ohio, and Trump will appear in West Virginia on Monday.
The intractability of the Obamacare repeal debate has some conservatives wondering whether the ideological tide is moving against of limited government altogether. “If a Republican won this time around it was going to show that maybe Obama was this historic exception. He got in there because of the financial crisis and then again because of a flawed opponent in Romney,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “Now it looks like Trump might just be a very temporary break. It’s a very bad situation.”
But several top Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close ally of the Trump administration, said that the effort to roll back Obamacare is not dead yet, and conservatives warned GOP lawmakers that failure will have dire repercussions.
“If this fails, it is a disaster for them. They will lose their moral authority to get anything done and lead. There will be a real breakdown of the Republican Senate,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth.
White House officials and lawmakers alike worried that a setback on healthcare would snowball, making tax reform and an infrastructure bill more difficult. “The fear is that we look impotent, that it makes things harder for the debt ceiling, and that it makes tax reform harder,” said a senior administration official.
To add to those woes, the Russia-related inquiries that have enraged the president show no signs of abating: The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are all scheduled to testify before Congress in the coming days while Trump himself reverts to the comfort of the campaign trail. He will address more than 40,000 Boy Scouts on Monday at their annual Jamboree in West Virginia, a state he carried by 42 points.
Against the backdrop of White House chaos and congressional paralysis, McCain’s diagnosis, the proximate cause of Lee and Moran’s announcement last Monday that they had decided to sink the healthcare bill, seemed a literal manifestation of an illness in the GOP. His status as an American hero who has drawn bipartisan admiration during his three and a half decades in Washington evoked nostalgia for the political establishment that Trump, the putative head of the GOP, was elected to raze.
“The only thing that makes it somewhat complicated is that the conventional establishment, while less chaotic, their record over the past 30 years is pretty bad. That makes it harder to desire a reversion to that sort of mode,” Krein said.