How Trump is Wasting the Republicans’ Congressional Majority

“Trump is heading into his second year in office with little to show in terms of legislative victories—and few reasons to believe his agenda will fare any better in the future,” writes George Washington University Professor and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Sarah Binder in a prereleased essay from the January/February Foreign Affairs.

“Undisciplined and unpopular, Trump has been largely unable to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill despite Republican control of both houses of Congress. With his political capital shrinking as his public approval falls, Trump will no doubt struggle to deliver on his campaign promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reform the tax code, build a wall along the southern border, and repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” Binder notes.

While, “It is tempting to blame Trump’s legislative failures on his lack of government experience, his indifference to the details of policy, and his tempestuous personality,” Binder argues “focusing only on personal characteristics misses the political and institutional dynamics at play. The two parties are deeply polarized, Republicans hold only a slim Senate majority, and Republican conferences in both chambers cannot agree on key issues. A more disciplined and popular president might have managed to bring Republicans together. But huge obstacles would still have remained. 

“In theory, Trump could help his party bridge these divides. As the political scientist Richard Neustadt famously argued, a president’s power stems from his ability to persuade. That, in turn, depends on his professional reputation in Washington and his public prestige more broadly. . . . Viewed from this perspective, it is small wonder that Trump has struggled to advance his agenda in Congress.”

The author observes “Trump seems singularly incapable of focusing. . . . The president doesn’t need to be a policy expert. But he does need to adopt a consistent message if he expects to unite a divided party and advance an agenda in Congress.”

“To be sure, congressional dysfunction is nothing new. In recent years, Congress has tended to delegate power to the executive—sometimes on purpose, other times as a consequence of deadlock. But now the buck no longer seems to stop with the president. Returning responsibility to Capitol Hill will not make finding solutions any easier if Republicans in Congress are unable to resolve policy impasses on their own.”

Binder concludes, “Trump’s prospects for legislative success in his second year look equally dim as those in his first. . . . Periodic spending bills to keep the government open require 60 votes, handing leverage to Senate Democrats. . . . Whatever price they extract, it will involve advancing their own agenda, not Trump’s.”

The essay is available now at ForeignAffairs.com, and the full issue posts on December 12. This link bypasses the paywall on ForeignAffairs.com for one month following the release date. We encourage journalists to share with their audiences.

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