Less than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump came up with a name for congressional Republicans who wouldn’t support higher age limits for any gun purchases: cowards. Now, he’s entirely backed away from that position. This is more or less par for the course for Trump, although it’s a particularly stark example of how he undercuts his own allies.
Does that kind of behavior harm him?
It’s true that congressional Republicans have treated him pretty well. There’s a serious Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the Russia scandal, but House Republicans have spent more energy with weak and distracting attacks on the FBI and others who dare to hold Trump accountable. Neither Republican-led chamber has done anything at all about the various conflicts of interest and other personal scandals.
On the other hand, it’s hard to identify anything that Trump has actually convinced congressional Republicans to do. He gets his way when he does things that they like, such as nominating judges that any Republican president would have chosen, or when he supports lower taxes, especially for high earners. When he wants them to do something they don’t want to do — parts of his federal budget proposal or infrastructure plan — they mostly ignore him. He wasn’t able to win over Republican opponents on his preferred approaches on immigration and health care reform.
They certainly haven’t hesitated to blast him over the steel and aluminum tariffs, although as my View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out, they’re unlikely to actually go so far as to actually legislate against it. In general, Republicans in Congress prefer to express their opposition to the Trump administration by delivering strongly-worded speeches, not forming legislative coalitions with Democrats.
It’s harder to interpret that kind of toothless opposition. Are Republicans afraid of the president and his supporters? Do his Republican opponents believe it’s in their self-interest to avoid losing fights inside their own party? After all, Trump is giving most Republicans in Congress most of what they want.
On Trump’s side, it’s impossible to know if he’s really cared about any of the proposals that Congress has rejected or ignored. Perhaps none of them. It seems clear that he cares about investigations into himself and his family. My guess is that congressional Republicans are increasingly fed up with him. Perhaps the current situation is a stable equilibrium, but these things have a way of coming back to bite presidents. Lyndon Johnson bullied Democrats in Congress for years (both in Senate and in the presidency), and for a long time that looked like legislative skill. Suddenly, he found fewer allies than he thought he had in 1967 and 1968. Richard Nixon trampled on Congress, including members from his own party. When Watergate broke, most Republicans in Congress stuck with him on the surface while key members and leaders cooperated with investigations. Eventually, all of them deserted him. Perhaps with Trump it will be different, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.