How Trump might Accidently Improve Washington
Over the past few months, and at an accelerated rate since the failed ACA repeal efforts, we have begun to see distance between the Republican Congress and the White House.
There are several potential and partly true explanations for this split. Ranging from generous to cynical: Republicans perhaps believe Trump’s managerial and leadership qualities are reckless and destructive — or they’re concerned about public perception lumping an unpopular Republican caucus with an arguably more unpopular President.
But whether they see Trump as a danger to the country or a just danger to their future political ambitions, the chaos and disrespect for rule of law in the White House is accidentally bringing us closer to a better place — a world in which the President is not the leader of either party.
Having a President as party leader creates and reinforces a host of perverse incentives that contaminate good faith and policy throughout Washington and the country.
Let’s take a look at the party-leader presidency from the perspective of both the supportive and the opposing party, and see if there isn’t a hidden truth to uncover behind the day to day GOP bickering.
How The President’s Party Acts
Subdued to either weak enabling or partisan grandstanding, congressional members that share a party with the president hardly behave like upstanding public servants.
First, there’s the issue of so-called party loyalty. Let’s say, for example, we define a generic president as the leader of the Republican Party. Any dissention from Republican figures can and will be equated to “betraying the party”.
This is more significant than it should be.
If going against the President means going against the party, this means a congressman who dissents is shunning the very institution they have an identity tied towards, the institution that half their constituents expect them to be a champion of, and the institution that will (or will not) be most responsible for keeping them in office.
Needless to say that when these are the consequences, dissent will be rare. Even if they believe he is wrong, Congressmen sharing the president’s party are pressured to equivocate, to go along to get along, regardless of their own beliefs about what may be good for the country.
In situations where congressmen would quite easily take a principled stance against a president of the opposite party, they are nowhere to be found when it is their own president/party leader committing similar or worse violations of norms. While the world is focused on calling out the hypocrisy of the situation, the real tragedy is the unrelenting self-interested behavior of our public servants.
This self-serving becomes even worse if the president’s party happens to hold a majority in one or both chambers.
As we saw with the healthcare debates, there is a certain disrespect for dialogue or compromise by the president’s party. When “your guy” is running the country, there is a certain arrogance that enters all but the best of congressmen. The combination of safety from veto, a weakened senate filibuster, and the ability to pass most small to medium votes on party lines makes the president’s party act as if they’re the only ones in the chamber
The safety from veto part is most important. It is the knowledge that the President will be sympathetic to the majority’s interest that is the final catalyst for this partisan posture. Case in point, the House of Representative voted over 50 times to alter, delay or repeal ObamaCare between 2010–2014, but it wasn’t until a Republican entered the White House that repeal efforts had any meaning.
The Other Party
Congress members who are of a different party than the President are caught in a similarly unfortunate spot. Both parties have been put in this position over the past decade.
More recently, Democrats have been the ones in the “just say no” box. Recent polling suggests that a majority of Americans believe the Democrats don’t stand for anything except being against Trump.
There’s an extent to which this party pushback rational. Of course you’re not going to see much legislation from the other party. If the President’s party is going to behave like we described above, how could you?
Thus, the party that doesn’t have the president’s ear stops trying to put forth new ideas and falls into destructive habits.
The cheap tendency, then, becomes wicked obstructionism that serves the dual purpose of halting an ideological agenda they find unwise while also appeasing to their partisans.
The Republicans were in a particularly prickly version of this dilemma with the man who ran as a postpartisan, Barack Obama. As Jeff Flake put in his Politico Piece:
“It was we conservatives who, upon Obama’s election, stated that our №1 priority was not advancing a conservative policy agenda but making Obama a one-term president — the corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime.”
If there’s anything Obama’s Presidency taught us it’s that bipartisanship is almost impossible to manufacture. It didn’t matter how genuine President Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship were or were not, his success was the Democratic Party’s success, and there was no getting around that perception. Thus, cooperation from the other party is seemingly illogical. (It also doesn’t hurt when many congressmen of one party have a vested interest in the narrative that the federal government doesn’t work).
And if someone does try to reach out the other side of the aisle, lord forgive them. They get marked as an evil bipartisan, moderately helping the other team. Who can forget Chris Christie’s horrid non-hug with President Obama, and the backlash he received because of it.
The moral hazard here is clear and depressing: if you reach across the aisle to the President, they will get to look like a strong bipartisan leader, and that will hurt you and your party in the long run.
The Constitution Hates Parties
There’s an assumption in modern politics that all relevant issues are or should be arguments between the left and right. Not true. Senate confirmations are perhaps the most common example in which the role of Congress is to be a sober check on the executive-regardless of any relationship between the President and members of the chambers.
Even on more policy related matters a healthy separation between Congress and the White House can and should exist. I like to think James Madison would have smiled at the recent Russian sanctions bill signing, not just because it was a meaningful response to foreign interference on our democracy, but because it was one of the rare modern instances of our checks and balance system operating how it was intended.
The best case scenario is that the fundamental tensions in Washington begin to move away from Democrats v. Republicans, and towards Congress v. Executive v. Courts — like our constitution craves.
Of all the problems George Washington warned us against, none seem more prescient than the dangers of factions.
From Washington’s farewell address,
“The alternate domination of one faction over another…It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” [emphasis added]
It is worth remembering that George Washington was not exactly in the ideological middle between his advisors’ Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian thinking (he preferred the former).
However, from the constitutional convention of 1787 until his final day as president, the thing that drove Washington to a measured demeanor, to the sober reflection needed to bring in the wide-ranging voices of our first presidential cabinet, was exactly what he described in his address — an understanding of what parties do to even the most well-meaning of citizens and greatest of countries. And a commitment to the President’s role to be above all that.
The Office of the Presidency should be a force explicitly against factionalism. This role for the President, perhaps its most important and longest lasting, is nearly impossible to execute at the helm of a party.
Gaps and Labels
What a non-party-leader president would look like is unclear. Whether the medium-term goal is an independent, a sane “outsider”, or someone with an aggressive habit of triangulation is a debate worth having.
Regardless, even if Trump may never fully or correctly play this role, the country will benefit from his party detachment sometime in the future.
The more daylight created between the White House and Republicans, the sooner Congressional Republicans can do what the country has needed from them for two years now — a complete and leadership-led disavowal of this president, in both words and actions.
Here is a question to ponder: If Trump had 100% of the same mannerisms and policy positions, but was labeled an Independent, what would Republican opposition to him look like?
The gap between the answer to the above question and the way Republicans treat Trump now, is exactly the problem party presidents cause.
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