the national interest

What’s Less Popular Than Donald Trump? Pretty Much Everything Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell Are Doing.

What if the GOP’s agenda is even less popular than Trump? Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For all the extensive legal jeopardy Donald Trump already faces in his very young presidency, it is striking that the greatest source of political jeopardy for both him and his party is not his possible Nixon-esque crimes but his Paul Ryan–esque health-care plan. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, while unpopular, is far less so than the health-care bill whose House passage he celebrated in the Rose Garden on May 4. One poll found 39 percent support for the Comey firing, which is twice the level of support for the House Speaker’s evisceration of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats running in special elections in Montana and Georgia have emphasized the House Speaker’s legislative handiwork over the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors.

The Republican Party that Trump hijacked last year has treated its freak-show president as the single weak point in its unified control of government. Its leadership has concluded, accordingly, that its best strategy is to ignore Trump’s antics and carry out its agenda. “If we don’t keep our promises, then we’re going to have a problem” in the midterm elections, Ryan said recently. What the party has not come to grips with is the reality that the promises themselves are a problem.

Trump made extravagant campaign pledges — that he would not cut Medicaid, that he would take care of every American’s health-insurance needs, that it would be “so easy” — and saddled his congressional party with the task of carrying many of them out. But it was not Trump who chose the design of the American Health Care Act. That was Ryan. The thrust of Ryan’s plan is to finance a tax cut benefiting mostly a very small number of wealthy investors by reducing or eliminating health-insurance subsidies for millions of people. There was never a political universe in which a plan like this was going to fly.

The Republican health-care bill indirectly led one incoming member of Congress to commit assault. Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs attempted to ask Republican candidate Greg Gianforte about a Congressional Budget Office report that concluded that the bill (which Gianforte had privately praised in a call with lobbyists, while waffling in public) would increase the number of uninsured by 23 million. Furious with the question, Gianforte allegedly grabbed Jacobs by the neck, slammed him to the ground, and demanded he leave the room. Obviously, Gianforte’s combination of rage and personal entitlement bears the major portion of blame for his crime. But the spark that set him off was the need to avoid being pinned down on his party’s domestic-policy priority. It is remarkable that Ryan could not write a health-care bill that a candidate could openly endorse in a state Donald Trump won by more than 20 points.

The other major item on Congress’s docket — sweeping tax cuts — are only incrementally more popular. During the campaign, Trump proposed a tax-cut plan that would confer about half of its benefits upon the highest-earning one percent. Ryan proposed a plan that would confer approximately all of its benefits upon that sliver. (To be precise, the richest one percent would get 99.6 percent of the money, according to the Tax Policy Center.) Whatever bill Congress hashes out will blend those two ideas, which is not conceptually difficult but poses its own problem: Americans overwhelmingly support higher, not lower, taxes on the rich. Given that the American Health Care Act also cuts taxes for the rich — the highest-earning 0.1 percent of households would enjoy an average tax cut exceeding $200,000 a year — the combination of the two bills would be quite astonishing. They would expose millions of Americans to the suffering, terror, and financial risk of lacking access to regular medical care while lavishing additional riches on a segment of the economy that has pulled away from the rest of America over the past four decades.

To think of Trump’s scandals and buffoonery as a “distraction” from the congressional party’s agenda misses the nature of the relationship between the two. When the agenda is this unpopular, distraction is no hindrance. The more significant dynamic is an escalating sense of time pressure. The party Establishment has decided to extract as much value as it can from Trump before his presidency collapses, or until the midterm elections deprive them of control of the House.

Ryan has experienced the Trump era as a series of humiliations. During the campaign, he formally endorsed his party’s nominee while attempting to signal moral discomfort with his bigotry and confessions of sexual assault. Ryan had an image to uphold: clean-cut, idealistic, wonky. Trump forced him to abandon the pose and reveal himself as a transactional politician with a conventional partisan bottom line. He would put up with anything, anything at all, if there were tax cuts, Medicaid reductions, and lax regulation of business.

“Ryan’s new strategy to hold back on Trump,” notes Politico, “is a shift for a man many Republicans fashioned as the moral compass of the party of Lincoln.” The most revealing word in that sentence is “fashioned,” in the past tense. That Ryan’s iconic status as moral compass for his party no longer pertains is simply taken as a given by a news media that once treated him reverentially.

Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, is one of the few Republican politicians who have escaped Trump with his reputation unscathed. That is because McConnell never pretended to be anything loftier than he was. His calculations, as always, lie right on the surface. “What the administration is doing, not only am I comfortable with it but I think the vast majority of Republicans in Congress feel that this is a right-of-center presidency, which is what we had hoped,” McConnell told Reuters. “If you look at what the president is actually for, it strikes me as indistinguishable from what a President Jeb Bush or a President Marco Rubio would have been advocating: deregulation, tax reform, repeal and replace of Obamacare, judges like Neil Gorsuch.”

To be sure, on health care McConnell enjoys the benefit of following Ryan, who exposed himself to the contradictions between his party’s glib promises and the bitter reality of unpalatable trade-offs. McConnell may face a similar reckoning, but he has drawn some lessons from Ryan’s unhappy experience. He has conducted his health-care negotiations with even more secrecy than Ryan did — not only avoiding any hearings but confining the negotiations to a coterie of loyalists who have not leaked any details. While Ryan promised quick passage of his bill, McConnell has not committed himself to a specific timetable or even predicted success. If he cobbles together support from 50 senators, he will spring a quick vote. If not, he will let the idea disappear quietly and move on to the relatively less difficult work of tax cutting.

Trump won the election in part because he seemed to depart from his party’s traditional profile. He would leave Medicaid alone, he would fund a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, he attacked Wall Street. As president, he has abandoned all those positions. That abandonment may be the necessary price for inducing a congressional party that distrusts him to close ranks behind him in the face of mushrooming scandals. If Republicans are going to cover for Trump’s misdeeds, they are damn well going to get some benefit out of it. His corruption is the price they pay for their agenda, and their agenda is the price he pays for his corruption. It is not so much that Trump is dragging down the party as that both are dragging each other to the bottom, and neither side has any reason to let go of the other.

*This article appears in the May 29, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

What’s Less Popular Than Donald Trump?