With Few Policy Prospects, Will Conservatives Divorce Trump?
Speaker Paul Ryan may want to spend more time with his family, but he also knows that there’s nothing for him to do in Washington. Maybe you’d settle for seeing your children on the weekend if there was a real shot at enacting big conservative reforms. But there’s no point making such sacrifices if all there is to do is keep the government open with legislative duct tape.
Ryan has accepted the reality that for ideological conservatives, this is it. They won’t get much more from Donald Trump beyond the tax reform bill and the appointment of some judges. Conservatives should ask themselves: What’s the point of being associated with a president who is stuck around 40 percent approval, facing multiple investigations into his inner circle and unable to deliver any more policy wins?
Prospects are particularly grim for conservatives on the legislative front, and the deregulation and judicial fronts aren’t looking so hot either.
The legislative situation is plainly bereft of activity. Trump has few proposals of which to speak, and what he does have, he doesn’t push. Nothing of significance has a chance of clearing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and Republicans can’t use the budget reconciliation process to prevent a filibuster until they can pass another budget resolution, which isn’t on tap for this year. The only item of import that Congress may address for the remainder of 2018 is keeping the government open past the end of the fiscal year on September 30. (Note that I used the word “may.”) By 2019, Democrats may well hold the House, putting the final nail in the Republican legislative coffin.
Can’t the Trump administration still roll back Barack Obama’s liberal regulations? Theoretically. But regulatory reform is always harder than it looks, and it’s even harder when your administration is full of incompetents. As Georgetown law professor Lisa Heinzerling recently explained in the Washington Post, federal courts have already blocked several of Trump’s deregulation efforts because of “elementary legal mistakes” by his team. Moreover, Politico’s Michael Grunwald busted the myth of EPA Administrator’s Scott Pruitt effectiveness, noting that he “has yet to create new regulations that would outlast his tenure or Trump’s, or to rescind any of the regulations Obama created,” in large part because his orders haven’t passed judicial muster.
But isn’t Trump remaking the federal judiciary with conservative appointees? That project is getting bogged down too. Trump had a stronger than usual first year of judicial confirmations, thanks to Senate Democrats junking the judicial filibuster in 2013, and to Senate Republicans keeping vacant seats open in Obama’s final two years in office. Now, conservative activists are complaining that Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, aren’t keeping up the pace.
There’s a backlog of more than 30 nominees who have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee but don’t have floor votes scheduled because bipartisan Senate procedural agreements allow for long delays between votes. More than 40 nominees are pending before committee. Plus, there are 80 vacant judicial seats for which nobody has been nominated by the White House.
Perhaps with enough time, the backlog can be cleared, especially if Senate Republicans enact a rule change to shorten the amount of the floor time needed before taking votes. But as it stands, Trump has seated 31 lower court judges over his first 15 months in office, an average of 2.1 per month. That’s actually about the same as Obama’s monthly rate of 2.0 for his first 20 months in office, and behind Obama’s two-term average of 3.4. (Obama also notched two Supreme Court justices in his first two years versus Trump’s one so far.) If Democrats manage to take the Senate in November, Trump surely won’t catch up.
On the basis of strict, short-term utilitarian logic, conservatives made the right call in sticking with Trump in 2016. After all, if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, conservatives wouldn’t have gotten any judges or any tax reform. But, as Donald Trump knows all too well, marriages need not be for eternity, especially shotgun nuptials such as this one. If conservatives have extracted about all they can from Trump, why keep lugging around his considerable baggage? Why allow Trump’s persona to define the Republican Party and the conservative movement?
There are a few signs conservatives are beginning to back away. Evangelical leaders are warning of an “enthusiasm gap” after Congress failed to defund Planned Parenthood in the recent “omnibus” spending bill, and Ann Coulter accused Trump of “total betrayal” since the bill lacked money for a border wall. CNN found that several Republican members of Congress are holding off from endorsing Trump for re-election.
With Trump’s approval still sky-high among Republican rank-and-file voters – who seem to care more about waging culture war in the media than notching policy victories – GOP officeholders and conservative leaders can’t easily throw Trump overboard, and probably won’t try. But with every day of inaction on the issues they care about, movement conservatives have to wonder if their marriage with Trump is akin to one in which they only stay together for the kids.