There was a time — and it wasn’t really all that long ago — when Donald Trump seemed all but unstoppable.
He spent the 2016 Republican primary swiftly dispatching a series of more experienced and better financed opponents. It wasn’t until the general election that his aura of invincibility started to fade — only to be reaffirmed when he pulled off a surprise victory over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, despite her popular vote majority.
But the days of constant winning are over. The early signs of this were his perpetually depressed approval rating and his quixotic attempts to implement a Muslim ban that the federal courts would find palatable. But his biggest defeat yet is still unfolding, as House Republicans struggle to salvage what’s left of Trump’s proposed Obamacare replacement. The president’s first big-ticket piece of legislation has turned into an unmitigated fiasco.
What’s most striking about this fiasco is that Democrats had barely anything to do with it. Instead, Trumpcare is being ripped apart by deep fissures within Trump’s own party. Members of the House Freedom Caucus — part of the GOP’s orthodox Ayn Rand wing — refuse to accept any legislation that preserves basic provisions such as requirements on essential health benefits. But their demands can’t be met without alienating less extreme colleagues in competitive districts.
The Trump administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) have been frantically racing to bridge the gap between the party’s opposing blocs. That they’ve failed to do so suggests Trump might not be a master deal maker after all. But it’s also a testament to the limited set of tools that Trump and Ryan are working with. They can try to attract more votes by changing language in the bill, and they can try taking their case to the public, but they can’t use status within the party as a compelling incentive for supporting the bill. The only have so many party mechanisms at their disposal to reward loyalty or punish betrayal.
Trump inadvertently made this obvious a couple of days before Ryan’s first failed attempt to ram Trumpcare through a House floor vote. At a meeting with the House Freedom Caucus, Trump told anti-Trumpcare holdout Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), “I’m coming after you.”
Maybe it was a joke between two pals. More likely it was a genuine threat. But either way, it drew attention to Trump’s genuinely weak hand when dealing with Republican defectors. How, short of endorsing a primary opponent, can he “come after” a downticket candidate? Even if he threw his support behind a pretender to Meadows’ seat in 2018, he might only provoke anti-Trumpcare financiers to weigh in on Meadows’ behalf.
This is a fundamental internal weakness of the Republican Party — of both parties, in fact. One of them has more seats in Congress and controls the presidency, but neither of them has much power to select its candidates or punish wayward officials. Instead of being bound together by institutional discipline, the major American parties draw what cohesion they have from their relative ideological uniformity. As political scientist Julia Azari put it in November, the United States has “weak parties and strong partisanship.”
This combination made Donald Trump president. High partisanship guaranteed that the Republican nominee, no matter who he or she was, would command the vast majority of Republican votes in a general election. But the party’s weakness meant that GOP officials were left unable to choose their preferred nominee. Influential party loyalists and the might of the Republican National Committee were toothless in the face of a wealthy, media-savvy outsider.
Ironically, the very mixture of weak party organization and strong party ideology that carried Trump to the White House is currently sinking his administration. Now that he controls the GOP apparatus that was unable to halt his candidacy, he’s discovering that it’s just as ineffective at halting Freedom Caucus ideologues. The result is a party that can hold power but is surprisingly bad at wielding it.