Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain are all smart, experienced politicians who have in the past demonstrated knowledge of how to use the powers of the office they hold in order to seek, obtain, and use leverage. Back in 2012, for example, all three joined Republican colleagues in blocking a proposed tax cut Democrats favored as part of a partially successful campaign to force Democrats to agree to an even larger tax cut.
But now that Donald Trump is president, they seem to have forgotten how the game is played and are acting like pundits instead — scolding Trump verbally when they think he deserves it, while straightforwardly voting with him as he endorses the bulk of the standard GOP legislative agenda.
The events of this past Tuesday, when Corker slammed an “utterly untruthful president” and Flake proclaimed that “it is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” were a case study in legislative ineptitude. Rather than joining forces — and seeking an ally in John McCain, who the week before denounced Trump’s “half-baked, spurious nationalism” — to issue some concrete demands, they hung around the Senate, and all three voted in the middle of the night for an important GOP leadership legislative priority. The bill at hand blocks a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule that would have made it easier to sue banks when they rip off customers.
One wouldn’t expect any Republicans to disagree with the bill as such. But as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose. The bill was, potentially, a leverage point, particularly since Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were opposed. If what’s important is standing up to Trump, that means picking some concrete fights and deciding that some things — perhaps including giveaways to the bank lobby — are less important than the stability of the American constitutional order. And if that particular bill wasn’t the piece of legislation anti-Trump Republican senators wanted to use, then they need to find another one. They’re senators, not pundits, and they need to start acting like it.
Senators know how to use leverage
As an example, consider the negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff” in December 2012.
The main issue here was that a package of tax cuts passed into law by George W. Bush back in 2001 was scheduled to expire under terms that were adopted back then in order to immunize the cuts from filibustering. Then-President Barack Obama’s proposal was to fully extend all of the Bush tax cuts except for a reduction in the top marginal income tax bracket. Obama chose to characterize this as extending “middle class” tax cuts, but in reality his plan created a significant tax cut for high-income households too.
Republicans did not like this idea and wanted instead to extend all the Bush tax cuts. Consequently, to get what they wanted, they adopted a negotiating posture whereby they would refuse to vote for a tax cut bill that cut taxes for everyone — including for rich people — on the grounds that it didn’t cut taxes for the rich as much as they would like.
Democrats, of course, mocked them for this — Republicans are voting against a tax cut! — but nobody was actually confused. The GOP caucus, including Corker and Flake and McCain, wasn’t against Obama’s across-the-board tax cut. But they were refusing to go along with it in order to create leverage to achieve what they wanted.
Ultimately, both sides reached a compromise. The top bracket went up, but its phase-in point was pushed up to $450,000 instead of $250,000. This was often discussed in the press as a debate about who the “really rich” are, but every rich person in America — even those with seven- or eight-figure incomes — benefited from the increased threshold to the tune of about $9,000 a year.
Republicans, in short, took a tactical stance against an across-the-board tax cut in order to obtain leverage and then used that leverage to deliver a concrete policy win — lower taxes for rich people — that they happened to care about passionately. Republicans could have instead made speeches furiously denouncing Obama and then voted for his tax plan on the grounds that on the merits, they agreed with the tax cut. But instead, they chose to use their powers of office to accomplish something.
Trump skeptics need to do something
Trump skeptics in the Republican congressional caucus — especially the senators among them — need to start thinking like senators and find themselves some leverage.
I don’t live inside the minds of Flake, Corker, and McCain, so I can’t know exactly how much of a high point of ideological principle they view this bank regulation thing to be. But in general, to take action against Trump, they need to do four things:
- Identify something they want to force Trump to do.
- Identify something Republicans want to pass that they think is less important than No. 1.
- Say that unless No. 1 happens, they will scuttle No. 2.
- Repeat as necessary.
Part of the genius of the American system of government is that issues don’t need to be closely related for senators to make them be closely related. Flake, Corker, and McCain all care a lot about foreign policy, for example. So one thing they might be concerned about is the extent to which the State Department’s senior leadership ranks are riddled with vacancies. They could have stood up and said they would scuttle the bill on bank lawsuits unless Trump submitted a full slate of well-qualified nominees for these positions.
Or since all three men have spoken out about the Trump administration’s troubling dishonesty, perhaps the thing they want is for Chief of Staff John Kelly to apologize to Rep. Frederica Wilson for lying about her in the White House briefing room.
Perhaps Flake, Corker, and McCain feel more passionately about bank deregulation than I thought (although McCain, who sporadically co-sponsors bank breakup bills with Elizabeth Warren, certainly doesn’t seem to feel passionately about bank deregulation) and could pick some other leverage point. It could be something as minor as the vote this morning to confirm Scott Palk to a district court judgeship in Oklahoma. Or it could be something as big as refusing to back leadership on procedural votes in the lead-up to tax reform unless the Senate Finance Committee votes to force Trump to disclose his tax returns.
The point isn’t that anti-Trump Republicans should adopt all of my policy views. It’s that they need to engage in some self-reflection about their own policy views. Pick some things that seem important to them but unlikely to happen, pick some things that seem likely to happen but less important, and threaten to scuttle the likely things unless they get their way on the important things. That’s what legislators do — they legislate.
Leaders outside of Washington need to act too
Unlike the three anti-Trump rebels of the Senate caucus, George W. Bush does not have any legislative power.
He does, however, have considerable prestige in American society and good connections to a network of influential Republican Party donors and political operatives. Six days ago, Bush deployed some of that prestige to a speech knocking Trump and Trump-style ideology. A couple of days earlier, however, he deployed his connections to try to help Ed Gillespie get elected governor of Virginia. Gillespie worked for Bush, and they have a longstanding personal relationship, so Bush’s desire to help him is understandable. That said, Gillespie is very much running on Trumpian themes this year.
Bush ought to step outside his personal affection for Gillespie and think about the concrete stakes in the election. If Gillespie wins, it will be taken as a huge success for the very brand of politics that Bush was denouncing. By contrast, if Gillespie not only loses but also drags down a bunch of down-ballot GOP state legislators, it will be taken as a big red flag that Republicans should worry about Trump’s influence on their party.
Having considered the concrete stakes, Bush — like Mitt Romney, who is positioned in a broadly similar way — should try to align not just his words but his actions with his desired outcomes. Maybe rather than spending the fall raising money for his friend Ed Gillespie who is running a Trump-style campaign, Bush should have been raising money for Flake, whom he doesn’t know as well but who was embattled and trying to hew to a different course.
The point, again, is that while words matter — I wouldn’t be a professional writer if I didn’t believe in words — people who aren’t professional writers should also consider the importance of things that aren’t words. The political process is a machine that has various levers. You need to try to press on levers that are likely to achieve the desired results.
Trump-skeptical Republicans have been overwhelmingly failing
The failure of Trump-skeptical Republicans to operate the machine correctly has been going on for a long time now.
Jeb Bush entered the 2016 primary with a splash, raising a ton of money and seeming to jump out as the establishment favorite. But he immediately proved to be a weak candidate and sank in the polls. His Super PAC then spent months uncorking millions of dollars of attack ads against every Republican candidate except Donald Trump, on the theory that Trump would inevitably fade so the real race was to be the not-Trump.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz tore each other apart as Trump was taking over the party, and then when Trump secured the nomination, anti-Trump GOP leaders — Romney, Bush, John Kasich, etc. — could not bring themselves to endorse Trump’s main opponent, or urge conservatives to vote for Gary Johnson, or mount a spoiler campaign aimed at sinking Trump. Instead, they largely echoed attacks on Hillary Clinton in an effort to help Republicans win down-ballot races, ignoring the obvious reality that the concrete real-world impact of this course of action was to help Trump win.
By the same token, while it’s true that Corker stepping down rather than running for reelection leaves him free to “speak his mind,” it’s also true that him stepping down makes it objectively much more likely that his Senate seat will be filled by a Trump ally.
It’s true that Corker speaking like this about Trump might have ended up in him losing in a primary. But it’s far from a guarantee. And even Flake, whose polling in Arizona was genuinely bleak, is only making it easier for a Trumpian to fill his seat by meekly standing aside rather than asking McCain and Romney and Bush to barnstorm the state with him.
The remarkable thing about intraparty resistance to Trump thus far is that while it’s been very high in volume, it’s been extraordinarily low in efficacy or coordinated action. But politics is a team sport, and it’s conducted with actions rather than words. To accomplish what they say they want to accomplish, Trump-skeptical Republicans need to start working together, making tangible demands, and taking concrete actions to make things happen.