How the GOP Should Marginalize Trump By Luke Perry
Analysts have begun to ask if President Trump is preparing to leave the Republican Party and what happens to it if he does. “Can the Republican Party survive?” This makes sense given Trump’s behavior and deep divisions in the GOP. Suspending a Trump-centric understanding of U.S. politics for a moment enables us to turn this around and highlight the other half of the relationship, GOP leadership in Congress.
It’s easy to criticize Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan for not forcefully enough rebuking the president when he criticizes the party, attacks its members and leaders, and most importantly, morally equivocates on racism and Nazism. These concerns are principled. McConnell and Ryan have prioritized strategy as the leaders of large and fragile coalitions. Strategic considerations now raise the question: Why don’t McConnell and Ryan abandon Trump?
Impeachment or a primary challenge is not the most realistic scenario. I’ve written about how Republicans are unlikely to support impeachment even if they prefer Mike Pence, though Trump has unwisely opened himself to political danger by unraveling his party ties. I also hinted at a primary challenge for Trump when James Comey testified before Congress, which is now getting serious attention, but past primary efforts to defeat sitting presidents have typically failed.
Abandoning Trump looks more like McConnell and Ryan creating a unified front for the GOP that identifies the party's policy priorities and pursues them independent of the president’s agenda and public commentary. This would better insulate both leaders, and the Republican Congress at large, from Trump’s criticism (a must to be successful in the midterms) and better enables them to pass major legislation by neutralizing a major distraction.
Congress is accustomed to having the president set the agenda. This typically makes strategic sense in ensuring the president will sign their bills and deflecting blame when things don’t work out as planned.
As one GOP party leader recently put it to me, the president will have to sign anything Congress passes anyhow. Vetoing any GOP bill that even remotely touches on the party’s priorities would be very damaging for the president. More ideological Republicans (Trump’s base) would not tolerate it.
Most Congressional Republicans who supported Trump during the campaign have stood by him. Those who haven’t, most prominently Senator Bob Corker (TN), have publicly criticized the president in the hopes of influencing his behavior. This is more likely to provoke counter attacks, as Mitch McConnell experienced, than meaningful change, and further divide the party.
Marginalization is more effective than confrontation. Trump craves power and attention. Congressional leaders understand him. They have asked him to take a backseat before. Now it makes strategic sense for this to become standing operating procedure in a way modern American government has not seen before.
Sticking with Trump because Republicans “see him as the best shot to pass tax reform and cut federal regulations” is equally idealistic. Trump has proven ill-equipped to handle the challenges of policy making and there is no evidence to suggest this will soon change.
Trump has significantly cut federal regulations through his powers over the executive branch, but most GOP presidents would have done same. There is no incentive for this to change if Congress distances itself from the president.
The future of the Republican Party is more up to Congress than the president. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan must assume the leadership vacuum created by President Trump. This can be done by identifying clear legislative goals and realizing them in a way that doesn’t publicly criticize the president, but no longer defers to him.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of presidential politics.