Jonah Goldberg: Desperate for a win, Trump pivots
The news that President Trump abandoned Republicans to strike a deal with congressional Democrats on a three-month extension of the debt limit yielded a predictable response from his predictable cheerleaders: it was brilliant and typically shrewd for the author of “The Art of the Deal” to take the very first offer the Democrats made and ask for nothing in return.
Less obsequious observers on the right claimed that this was the long-prophesied moment. The seventh seal had been broken. Donald Trump was “pivoting” at last. “The pivot is real and it’s spectacular!” proclaimed Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist.
In the lexicon of Trumpism and anti-Trumpism, “pivot” has many meanings. But in this context, pivot means to reach across party lines and work with Democrats, giving the shaft to his own party, or at least to the conservatives in the GOP.
Such a move has been feared by many conservatives from the earliest days of Trump’s candidacy. The former New York Democrat holds no deep love for ideological conservatism, and many of his favorite issues — protectionism, infrastructure, etc. — are more naturally part of the Democratic portfolio.
But those fears didn’t pan out at first. The president and congressional Republicans tried to mimic the Democrats in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and run the table, particularly on Obamacare “repeal and replace,” on a partisan basis. Unfortunately, the GOP couldn’t get it done. This infuriated many conservatives, Republicans and Donald Trump himself, and to some extent rightly so.
For years, Republicans said that if they could win both Congress and the White House there’d be nothing they couldn’t do. Whether this was a lie or just wishful thinking is debatable. Regardless, they failed for several reasons. The Republican majority in the Senate is much narrower than the Democratic majority was when Obama was elected. Many GOP leaders never thought Trump would win, and so they hadn’t prepared for victory. Also, the Republican Party is divided along a host of fault lines, and a large swath of the Republican caucus has no experience at actually governing.
This is why Trump’s decision to throw Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan under the bus was greeted with such glee by many Trump boosters. They place the blame for all of Trump’s myriad blunders on the GOP “establishment.” They’d rather see Trump pivot and work with Democrats if it means Trump can declare victory about something — anything — and if it makes the establishment look bad. What was once a fear is now a hope.
The problem is there’s another reason Congress has disappointed the president and his most ardent supporters: Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Even under the best circumstances, major legislation cannot get out of Congress without robust presidential leadership. I wish it were otherwise, because the Congress is the first branch of government and should take the lead. But in the modern era, you can’t outsource the big stuff to Congress. Trump didn’t know this and refuses to learn.
For instance, earlier in the week the White House said Trump was ending the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, which lets undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children stay here. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out and said it was unconstitutional. But when the press — and former president Obama — castigated Trump as heartless and cruel, the president made it clear he wants Congress to restore the program by passing legislation. And if it doesn’t, he suggested, he might keep the program via the same means his AG had just described as unconstitutional.
Mark Krikorian, the leading intellectual advocate for a more restricted immigration policy, should be a natural ally of this White House. He told the New York Times, “(Trump’s) being pulled in a bunch of different directions, and because he doesn’t have any strong ideological anchor, or deep knowledge of the issue, he ends up sort of not knowing what to do.” Instead, the president goes with his gut on everything, letting himself be baited by negative TV coverage.
There are many reasons why the pivot theory won’t pan out. Trump has made himself too radioactive with the Democratic rank-and-file. Most of his agenda is equally radioactive. But the main reason it will fail is that, contrary to wishful theories that Trump is playing “four-dimensional chess,” the president doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.