The Trump administration knows it hasn’t gotten off to a very impressive start, with Shane Goldmacher reporting that officials are increasingly panicked about a likely impending wave of stories about a first 100 days devoid of major achievements and Maggie Haberman reporting that “some form of overall review” is in the works that could be used to generate a shake-up.
Meanwhile, tensions between chief strategist Steve Bannon and the rising star of chief son-in-law Jared Kushner have been openly aired in multiple media outlets. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, too, has been on thin ice since the beginning of the administration and appears to be taking blame, in particular, for the dismal fate of Trump’s health care efforts where his relationships on Capitol Hill were supposed to be crucial.
Kushner is a political neophyte, but he previously orchestrated the ousters of Corey Lewandowksi, Paul Manafort, and Chris Christie from their places near the top of the Trumpworld pyramid. He also appears to have been instrumental in bringing people with subject matter knowledge but no personal ties to Trump into the fold. Still, the fundamental issue with any new staff shake-up will remain exactly the same as with previous staff shake-ups — Trump is the real problem, and he isn’t going to fire himself in favor of someone well-suited to being president.
What’s more, beyond Trump’s personal failings, there’s genuinely little reason to believe that the GOP’s current legislative struggles have anything to do with the White House. Long before Trump came on the scene, conservative ideologues on Capitol Hill constructed a set of alternative facts about repealing the Affordable Care Act that served as a useful electioneering strategy but simply don’t work as a governing agenda.
The chaos in the Trump White House is a symptom of Trump’s presence in the Oval Office, not bad staffing. And his ability to secure the GOP nomination in the first place is a symptom of the larger rot in the conservative movement. A staff shake-up can’t fix this because it fundamentally can’t be fixed.
Trump burns through staff like a reality television host
An exciting conceit of reality television programming is that it makes sense to fire one person a week over a series of weeks, in order to maintain constant bursts of drama that keep the audience invested in the ongoing narrative of the show. That’s how Survivor worked to kick off the reality craze, it’s how classy socialist reality offerings like The Great British Baking Show work, and it’s how Trump’s show, The Apprentice, worked.
In keeping with his background as a showman, publicity maven, and entertainer, Trump has been a consistently fascinating story, starting from the moment he descended the escalators at Trump Tower to denounce Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists and continuing through to the surprise launch of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
Like the successful reality TV host he is, he’s always kept the drama turned up high. That’s how he managed to burn through an unprecedented number of campaign managers, while firing a national security adviser, and perhaps a chief of staff, within his first 100 days.
But while the entertainment value of the Trump presidency has been consistently high, the governance value has been consistently low. Which is why, traditionally, America has hired presidents with previous experience in the field of government.
The constant staff merry-go-round reflects the fact that Trump himself is bad at his job. He is impulsive, uninformed, and while often disengaged from the details of things, he’s also unwilling to relinquish control and delegate authority in a clear way.
Paul Ryan made a hash of the GOP legislative agenda
But the most fundamental problem with the Republican Party legislative agenda has very little to do with Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan constructed an ambitious yet rickety framework that has proven unable to withstand contact with reality. The plan was to:
- Rapidly repeal the Affordable Care Act through the budget reconciliation process, while promising an unspecified replacement down the road
- Move on quickly to tax reform, also using the budget reconciliation process, taking advantage of the fact that ACA repeal constitutes a large tax cut to do a revenue-neutral reform
- Shift to the longer-term project of scaling back all federal support for low-income families
The basic problem with this scheme, as became clear after the election, was that its first plank — “repeal and delay” of Obamacare — lacked support in the Senate. Ryan acknowledged that this was true, but refused to acknowledge that this rendered the edifice he’d built on the foundation of repeal and delay unworkable. Instead, he decided to plunge ahead with a repeal-and-replace scheme that had to operate on the same aggressive timetable as the initial plan for a clean repeal vote, and that had to serve the same tax-cutting purposes.
Trump, it is true, arguably erred in agreeing to go along with this doomed effort. But Mitch McConnell went along with it too, and on some level there’s simply nothing people in other branches can do about a runaway House speaker. To the extent that Trump intervened in this debate in a relevant way, it was to break the news to the House that repeal and delay was dead in the Senate and they shouldn’t bother with it — an insight that was both substantively and strategically correct.
It’s hard to make progress on a bait and switch
There’s no doubt that a certain number of amateur-hour antics emanating from the White House have exacerbated the GOP’s governing troubles. The fact that neither Bannon nor Priebus has any relevant background in executive branch management surely isn’t helping here. But, fundamentally, when you elect an amateur president, you get an amateur-hour White House. Trump himself could step aside in favor of Mike Pence, a former governor of an actual state and a veteran Congress member, who would conduct himself in a professional manner. But short of that, there’s not much one can really do here.
Meanwhile, Pence or anyone else in the job would struggle with the Republican legislative agenda for the fundamental reason that it doesn’t make sense.
The Affordable Care Act promised to provide Americans with universal, comprehensive health insurance coverage. It brought us a lot closer to that goal, but it also fell short in a variety of ways. Republican spent years tapping into public frustration with the ways it fell short to drive anger at the law. But from day one, they have proposed replacing it with measures that would move us further from what voters want — covering fewer people, raising deductibles, making insurance less useful to the sick — rather than closer, in order to pursue a policy agenda of tax cuts on the rich that isn’t even popular among rank-and-file GOP voters.
This bait-and-switch agenda is reasonably clever if you accept the key premise that Republicans must find some kind of way to advance an unpopular tax-cutting agenda. But it’s objectively difficult to pull off because inability to communicate honestly about what you’re doing undermines internal communication, and because the practical consequences of enacting an agenda that delivers the opposite of what was promised are inherently problematic.
To the extent that Trump has anything to do with these problems, it’s that the intellectual and ideological shambles of modern conservatism made the Republican Party primary process more vulnerable to takeover by a mountebank like Trump than it should have been. But the shambles itself long predates Trump, and fixing it would require something much bigger than a staff shake-up.