Donald Trump is venting at Mitch McConnell over the failure of "repeal and replace." That's... not smart, in a classically Trumpian way. I'm going to revisit a comparison I have been making since March of 2016 (see, for example, here and here). Trump as President is basically Jimmy Carter. Other political scientists have been making this comparison recently too, but I'm pretty sure I was there first, if for no other reason than the fact that I started taking him seriously as a presidential contender in the GOP nomination contest while the rest of my colleagues were still writing him off as a sure-loser (mostly thanks to a terrible book called The Party Decides, which I have been bashing since the inception of this blog).
Anyway, here's a quick recap on the GOP's repeal-and-replace chances in the Senate, and how I have assessed them, as well as McConnell. After the November election, I declared that under any other GOP president, I would have said that the party would have shirked on their promise, and just done a series of small-bore measures because repealing existing benefits would be too politically risky. Multiple times throughout the process, I said I didn't see a way that the GOP could get it done. The most uncertain I became was when McConnell proposed "skinny repeal." Skinny repeal only failed because it lost McCain's vote. Collins and Murkowski voted against it, but they were never gettable votes on anything else, and they didn't really matter. McCain was the determining vote. McCain has a reputation among some as a "maverick," for breaking from party leadership, but he rarely actually does it. He gave a grand speech when he showed up to vote on the motion to proceed, about how horrible it is to break from regular order. Then, he voted yes on the motion to proceed, and yes on a proposal that wasn't moved through regular order. People like me called him out for just doing the typical McCain posturing thing. Voting against skinny repeal was surprising because it is so rare for McCain to do the real maverick thing. That's how close McConnell came. And what could McConnell possibly have done to either Collins, Murkowski or McCain? Nothing. He has no leverage over any of them. Collins is probably leaving to run for Maine Governor, Murkwoski has already shown that she can lose a primary, run as an independent write-in candidate and still keep her seat, and John McCain is a seriously old guy dying of a brain tumor. What the fuck is going to scare him?
McConnell lost, but tactically, he played that as well as he could have. The GOP just didn't have the votes. When you assess how well someone performs a task, you have to consider the difficulty of the task. I made this very point about the Senate, comparing the House and Senate. I said that if the GOP had as hard a time as they did passing anything through the House, they probably just couldn't manage in the Senate because it was too difficult. The difficulty of the task had to be acknowledged. In that post, I included a clip of violin prodigy Mark O'Connor, playing Orange Blossom Special. Now, Mark O'Connor is on a level that is just different from mere mortals. My favorite bluegrass singer is a gentleman named Tim O'Brien. He is also a multi-instrumentalist who can play anything with strings. I'm happy to listen to him play fiddle. Can he play as well as Mark O'Connor? Fuck no. Nobody can play as well as Mark O'Connor. (Maybe Stuart Duncan... And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope!). But, anyone who bashes Tim O'Brien's fiddle-playing is even more of an asshole than I am, and that's a pretty big asshole. He plays better than you or I ever will. He's just not Mark O'Connor.
McConnell is a really strong tactician, given a task that may well have been impossible. He didn't get the job done. I don't know that anyone could have, but the insane difficulty of the task needs to be taken into consideration.
Of course, Trump can't do that. He has to find someone to blame other than himself for the failure of repeal-and-replace because the motto of the Trump administration is "the buck stops somewhere else," and he also has to think in terms of pure winning and losing. There is no room in that dichotomy for incorporating the difficulty of the task. If McConnell lost, then he's just a loser. It doesn't matter if the task was somewhere between insanely-difficult and impossible. McConnell must just suck. So, replace him. No, that doesn't make logical sense, but it's how Trump "thinks."
Oh, and remember Carter? This is a post about Carter. As I said at the beginning of this post, I started writing back in March of last year about the parallels between Donny-boy and Jimmy Carter. Carter won a nomination against the will of his party elders because of changes to the nomination rules after 1968. As President, he had no connections to his national party, poor relations with his party leaders in Congress, and as a result, had little legislative success during his Presidency. Key citation, Nelson W. Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform.
Trump won a nomination against the will of his party elders because of the post-1968 nominating system, has poor relations with his party leaders, has little legislative success, and continues to antagonize his own party's leaders in Congress. This is a way to get things done, how?
Yeah, Trump needs McConnell. McConnell is far smarter than Trump. OK, technically, just about everyone is smarter than Trump (except for the fucking idiots who voted for him, which, granted, is a rather large number of people, and now I'm depressed...), but Trump needs someone in Congress who can actually work the legislative process. The smartest Republican legislative tactician right now is Mitch McConnell. Is he sleazy? Hell yes. Is he bound by any pangs of conscience? No. Between the shit he pulled after Scalia died, the "nuclear-grade bonkers" process of working out a "repeal-and-replace proposal (great phrase there, Sen. Murphy!), McConnell is actually what you get if you give Trump a brain: the winning-is-everything mentality combined with actual knowledge of how the world works. If Trump continues to alienate McConnell, he just pushes himself further into Carter territory.
Now, McConnell probably doesn't care that much. McConnell, unlike Trump, has some thicker skin. He's going to keep working towards policy victories, and if Trump doesn't stand in his way on substance, McConnell will probably just write off Trump's bullshit as the whiny ramblings of a semi-coherent toddler in the middle of a temper tantrum because that's basically true, and McConnell has been around. Sticks and stones. However, if Trump actually starts trying to fuck with McConnell, the problem is as follows: there is no outcome that is good for the GOP. If Trump wins the fight, the end result is that the GOP loses their smartest player. If McConnell wins, the GOP winds up in a Carter situation.
Then again, they're pretty much already there.
As I keep saying, though, the more frustrated Trump becomes domestically, the more dangerous he becomes internationally.