Everyone in Washington is trying to figure out why President Trump’s agenda has stalled on multiple fronts and why his approval numbers are swirling down the toilet. CNN’s Chris Cillizza suggests Trump’s penchant for disruption and chaos actually works against him. (I agree.) Others point to Trump’s failure to forge relationships on Capitol Hill.
Still others say the problem is congressional Republicans. Trump’s social media director has called for a primary against a House conservative who opposed Trump’s health plan, which may have violated a law designed to keep government officials from swaying elections. Some GOP groups are reportedly mulling ads targeting GOP lawmakers who don’t vote with Trump. Thus, the problem is their disloyalty.
All this has some truth to it. But here’s another overarching reason for Trump’s travails: As his campaign promises are getting translated into concrete policy specifics, Americans are recoiling from the results. What’s more, this process is unmasking the disconcerting levels of dishonesty, bad faith, and lack of concern for detail and procedure that are rotting away at the core of his agenda and approach to governing, all of which is plainly working against him.
The result has been a presidency lacking in significant victories, beset by major stumbles — including the downfall of the Republicans’ health-care bill and his travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries — and that is the target of litigation as a result of executive actions, especially related to the environment.
There are more potential roadblocks ahead. Already, congressional Republicans have balked at his proposed budget, and the White House’s insistence on increased spending for the military and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could imperil a spending bill needed to keep the government running past the end of April.
The health bill, the travel ban and the border wall are all either defeated or in deep trouble. As veteran Washington consultant David Gergen put it, Trump is “flailing because he doesn’t know where to find his natural allies.”
But if this is so, surely it is partly because the policies are so unpopular. Take health care: Many blame House conservatives for tanking the GOP bill. But more pragmatic GOP lawmakers also played a big role. They opposed it in large part because the policy was so regressive that even they could not abide by it. The plan would have cut over $800 billion in Medicaid spending — which would have left 14 million fewer on Medicaid, according to the Congressional Budget Office — while delivering an enormous tax cut for the rich.
A number of moderate House Republicans opposed the plan precisely because it would have taken coverage away from many of their poorer constituents. Moderates were also alienated in part because the plan was broadly unpopular: A recent poll found that only 17 percent of voters backed the plan, and core Trump voter groups opposed it. The Medicaid cuts were a key reason for that: 74 percent of voters, including 54 percent of Republicans, opposed its Medicaid cuts — revealing broad opposition to its most prominent mechanism for massively rolling back spending to cover poor people.
Trump alone is not to blame for this. Trump didn’t care about the details — he only wanted a “win” — and thus embraced Paul Ryan’s plan. It is Ryanism, which includes repeal-and-replace as part of the broader goal of shredding the safety net, that helped create this disaster. Ryan was supposed to craft a policy that would prove ideologically satisfactory to congressional Republicans and could also be sold through shrewd rhetorical subterfuge as a fulfillment of Trump’s promise of better health care for everybody at lower costs. The CBO blew all that up by unmasking its truly regressive nature and, in the process, the big policy lie at the core of Trump’s repeal-and-replace promise. The details ended up mattering.
Something similar is happening on the travel ban and border wall. The original travel ban, which was blocked by the courts, was the result of a laughably slapdash process that could not conceal its anti-Muslim animus. The new version was also put on hold, in part because Trump and his advisers themselves revealed that its true rationale and goals were very similar, thus making it just as vulnerable to legal challenges, even as its stated rationale has been undercut by Homeland Security’s own analysts. (The fact that there’s no serious rationale for it may help explain why it’s unpopular.) Meanwhile, the wall on the Mexican border may also stumble over one of Trump’s big lies. He claimed Mexico will pay for it, but now that Congress actually has to do so, Republicans are privately saying they don’t really want to fight for that spending. The fact that the wall is also very unpopular probably makes this easier for them.
Trump could still notch victories soon. Neil Gorsuch may be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Trump may get tax reform of some kind (including huge tax cuts for the rich). But other aspects of his agenda are still in doubt. Trump has signed executive orders rolling back our policies to fight climate change, but doing that will take years and is very unpopular, perhaps in part because it won’t actually restore coal jobs, as he has promised. Trump’s vow of infrastructure spending could prove popular, but we don’t know whether it will amount to anything more than a tax break and privatization scheme. Trump’s trade bluster is also colliding with the complexity of policy reality.
Why is Trump tanking? The bottom line is that the ongoing translation of Trump’s agenda into policy specifics is showing that major elements of it are unpopular, or unworkable because they are premised on lies, or both.