Rich Lowry: The cognitive dissonance presidency
To paraphrase Groucho Marx, President Donald Trump has a position on the Lamar Alexander/Patty Murray health care deal, and if you don’t like it, he has another one.
Within hours, Trump veered wildly on the bipartisan compromise on Obamacare that the Tennessee Republican and the Washington Democrat forged at his personal urging. At times supportive, noncommittal and opposed, Trump finally came out against, his final answer until further notice.
It isn’t unusual for a politician to wobble when confronted with a nettlesome issue or a shifting political environment. “To live is to maneuver,” said the great 20th-century conservative Whittaker Chambers. It’s downright weird, though, for a president to rapidly switch sides on something he gave every indication that he wanted.
The Trump administration has formidable obstacles in the way of substantive success — a slender Senate majority, lack of staffing, an unrelenting opposition — but none looms quite as large as the fact that Trump himself has no idea how he wants to govern.
Trump’s decision to end Obamacare’s cost-sharing reduction payments made sense as a political strategy only if he wanted to pressure congressional Republicans into a bipartisan deal. The termination of the payments wasn’t going to discomfit the Democrats, who could scream “sabotage” and blame Trump and Republicans for every failing of Obamacare going forward. It was nervous Republicans who were going to feel compelled to remove the political heat by propping up Obamacare.
It seemed that this is precisely what Trump wanted. The president initially took credit for forcing Republicans and Democrats to talk about a health care deal. Yet he turned around and opposed the deal, saying he couldn’t support “bailing out” insurance companies.
Trump can’t decide who he wants to be. As a matter of substance (malleable and nonideological) and self-image (the ultimate deal-maker), he should be with Republican moderates. This is the Trump who encourages Lamar Alexander to get together with Patty Murray, and talks a DACA deal with Chuck and Nancy.
As a matter of affect (unapologetically outrageous) and sensibility (thoroughly anti-establishment), he should be with the House Freedom Caucus. This is the Trump who pulls the plug on CSR payments over the advice of more cautious advisers and releases immigration principles that will never be realized in any bipartisan agreement.
Which of these Trumps predominates depends on which meeting the president happens to be in.
At the moment, pro-Trump operatives want to go out and kill elected Republicans who don’t support the Trump agenda, even though it’s vague what exactly that is and it’s subject to constant change. Alexander is as sensibly establishment as GOP senators come, and thought he was not just supporting the Trump agenda, but doing the president’s bidding. Is he a friend, or an enemy, or a befuddled would-be ally?
In terms of internal Republican politics, if nothing else, it suits Trump to be up for grabs. Both major factions within the party are vying for his affections. Steve Bannon wants to persuade the president to support a crusade on behalf of True Trumpism™; Mitch McConnell wants the president to steer clear of dubious candidates and show a little discipline.
Trump is happy to keep a foot in each camp. He can say nice things about Bannon but suggest he’s not on board with everything he’s doing, while at the same time touting his great relationship with McConnell, yet prodding him on Twitter whenever he feels like it.
Trump’s approach keeps everyone guessing and keeps him from getting pinned down, but it is no way to lead a party. This is why Trump’s strong suit is things he can do on his own, namely culture-war battles, fights with the news media and other critics, and executive actions. These don’t involve many moving parts and don’t require much constancy.
For Trump, very little is ever truly ruled out or ruled in, and before long, a bipartisan health care deal will surely again strike his fancy.