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If we’re being honest, the GOP has no agenda

The first step in getting out of a hole is to stop digging.

President Trump And Sen. Mitch McConnell Address Media After Working Lunch
President Trump and Senator McConnell walking to places unknown
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

agenda, noun: A plan of things to be done or problems to be addressed.

The problem with Republicans’ agenda in Washington is that there is no plan. Indeed, the real problem is not even that there is no plan: It is that the fact there is no plan is plainly visible and not even denied. Regardless of whether we think the current situation represents one of “unified government,” the reality is that regardless of who is in the White House, the congressional Republicans have remained largely unchanged over the past few years. Accordingly, the fact that they are unable to come up with a common plan — or even a common set of talking points — speaks volumes about how the realities of President Trump’s America interact with the “weak party system” of the United States federal government.

Trump is president. The remainder of his party in Congress is subject to elections, and challenges, on a different schedule. Given that members of Congress typically value reelection but do not need Trump’s permission to seek it, Trump’s power over them is effectively limited to his power to persuade voters and help secure or deter their reelection goals. This power, it turns out, is finite.

For example, consider the (ironically labeled) Strange special election in Alabama, in which Luther Strange — the putative insider candidate, with Trump’s (admittedly tepid) endorsement — lost to outsider candidate Roy Moore. Accordingly, Trump’s ability to enforce party discipline through his power to endorse is clearly limited.

While Trump’s electoral power is circumscribed, his ability (and apparent willingness or proclivity) to cause electoral problems is seemingly unbounded. For example, consider the absolute mess created by Trump’s late-night kinda-sorta rescission of cost-sharing subsidy payments for health care insurance, or the desolate wasteland of unnecessary backlash initiated by his invocation of one of the most sensitive of duties of the commander in chief (contacting the relatives of armed services members who lost their lives in the line of service). The Republican Party has, collectively, not only consistently missed opportunities to make headway but has endured self-inflicted wounds on an astonishingly regular basis.

Describing those two (of many) missteps requires at least two mouthfuls with a breath in between. In fact, together they represent an abomination with respect to Trump’s putative role as leader of the GOP. The fact that describing his missteps is so wordy and convoluted simply and vividly illustrates the crap storm that the GOP has inherited and seemingly countenances under his leadership.

To validate the assertion that “the GOP seemingly countenances” said crap storm, I simply note that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Mr. Trump for lunch on Monday to declare that they “are together totally on this agenda...”

My point here is not that the GOP should necessarily pursue its agenda or not; it’s rather a plea for coherence. After all, a “do nothing government” is at least doing nothing. In contrast, the GOP is currently occupying a huge swath of bandwidth with the equivalent of an animated GIF of the party shooting itself in the foot over and over. The good news is that fixing this should be easy. Here’s one simple guide to doing so:

  1. Move on from health care. The reality is that nothing is going to work now. It’s too fraught electorally, and, to be honest, Congress has no idea what to do, anyway. The Affordable Care Act is not perfect — but neither is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Clean Air Act of 1970, or the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. We have made, and will make, changes to these major laws by amending them. For better or worse, depending on your political disposition, this is how changes will occur to the Affordable Care Act too. Even if only from an electoral position, “repeal and/or replace” is simply not feasible right now.
  2. Tax reform. First: Take Trump out of the equation. Second: Congressional GOP leadership takes the mic. Speaker Paul Ryan is supposedly very interested in this dimension of policy, maybe even a “wonk” in this realm. So draw up and publicize a reform plan. I don’t know if I would agree with it, but I definitely know that the optics of it being Ryan’s plan, rather than that of conflict-of-interest-ridden President Trump, can only help its prospects of success.
  3. Propose a realistic, non-draconian budget. The initial budget proposal is silly. Simply put, it doesn’t actually work arithmetically, and, more importantly from a political standpoint, it is DOA. Budgets are like soufflés: While they are baking, walk softly or start over.

I could dig deeper about other “priorities” for the GOP prior to 2018, but realistically, getting a real budget — not a contrived continuing resolution — passed seems to be a stretch. Tax reform is “possible,” and worth going after, from a programmatic/agenda perspective. But none of it happens if the GOP doesn’t set repealing the ACA to the side for the time being.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Albert Einstein is a fitting send-off: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell would be well advised to keep this in mind as they plot out the few months remaining before the midterm election cycle gets into full swing.