Diplomatic relations between the White House and Capitol Hill are breaking down. Earlier this month, the Senate Majority Leader publicly suggested that the president’s ignorance about the legislative process and “excessive expectations” were undermining congressional Republicans. This led to a phone call between the two leaders, which led to a shouting match, which led to President Trump mocking Mitch McConnell’s legislative impotence over Twitter, which led to the suspension of all direct talks between the two men for what has now been two weeks. During that time, McConnell’s associates informed the paper of record that he suspects Donald Trump’s presidency may be beyond saving — a sentiment that the Majority Leader has yet to publicly disavow. The president, for his part, continued to encourage primary challenges to McConnell’s most vulnerable colleagues, a habit that has estranged him from much of the Senate GOP.
Trump has also been ruffling feathers in the House. This week, the president called on his party to shut down the government if Democrats refuse to fund his border wall, a proposal that undermines Paul Ryan, who is struggling to keep his caucus’s far-right faction from pursuing similar politically toxic (and strategically incoherent) gambits. The Speaker was forced to contradict the president to reporters Wednesday afternoon.
One might think that the president would wish to resolve these feuds, given that effective cooperation between his administration and the congressional leadership is a prerequisite for passing his legislative agenda. If so, then Trump decided that the best way to mend fences with the congressional GOP would be to publicly scold “Mitch M.” and “Paul R.” for refusing to follow his sage legislative advice, and, thus, creating the debt ceiling “mess.”
The GOP leadership did consider the idea that Trump cites back in July. But they ostensibly found that the gambit lacked support with the recalcitrant House Freedom Caucus. Those far-right ideologues subsequently informed Paul Ryan that they would only vote for debt-limit hike if the legislation included massive spending cuts or deregulatory measures. Such provisions would never survive the Senate, where any debt-ceiling bill will need the support of Democrats (and moderate Republicans). So, the Freedom Caucus has essentially declared their opposition to any debt-ceiling hike that can actually pass — and warned Ryan that if he tries to avoid a debt default with Democratic votes, they will try to end his Speakership.
If Trump wanted to actually aid the debt-ceiling effort, he could direct his dyspeptic tweets at the Republicans who are actually obstructing the passage of a “clean” hike. That he’s focusing his fire on Ryan and McConnell suggests that he is either ignorant of his government’s most basic political realities, or indifferent to them.
Regardless, for the GOP leadership, the words “President Pence” must sound like music right about now. But for all McConnell’s private comments about Trump’s unsalvageable presidency — and the myriad grounds for impeachment the mogul has provided Congress — the GOP will probably need to keep dancing with the one that brought them.
As rough as the past couple months have been for Trump, they’ve been even worse for the Republican leadership. One recent poll put McConnell’s approval rating at 9 percent. Paul Ryan’s favorability is hovering below 30 percent. Meanwhile, the president’s own pollster published figures this week that suggest Republican voters overwhelmingly blame the congressional GOP for the party’s legislative failures. One can take that finding with a speck of salt, given the source. But Trump has consistently enjoyed stronger support from his party’s faithful than have Ryan and McConnell. And while elite opinion treats the president’s racism as a bigger scandal than the GOP’s plutocratic policy priorities, the Republican electorate finds the latter far more alienating than the former.
So long as GOP voters prefer Trump’s demagoguery to the Republican Party’s donor-driven agenda, “Paul R.” and “Mitch M.” are gonna be stuck with their horrible boss.