The Trump-McConnell Spat

If the GOP Congress fails, so does the Trump Presidency.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, July 11.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, July 11. PHOTO: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The damage from the GOP’s health-care debacle has only just begun, and the latest evidence is this week’s public spat between President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The big potential winner here is Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Mr. McConnell has been getting the Kim Jong Un treatment this week, as Mr. Trump has pounded away for the Senate’s recent failure to reform ObamaCare. “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!,” the President tweeted Thursday morning from his vacation redoubt in Bedminster, N.J.

Mr. Trump was slightly more gentle six hours later, but he laid down the Senate’s challenge for September: “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!” 

The President was angered by Mr. McConnell’s remarks earlier in the week in Kentucky that perhaps Mr. Trump expected too much too soon from Congress. “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before,” Mr. McConnell said, according to a local CNN affiliate that covered the event. “I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”

They both have a point. The ObamaCare collapse was ugly, and Mr. Trump is right to hold Senators accountable for their votes. We certainly don’t plan to forget the many contributors to defeat; see an example nearby.

But Mr. Trump didn’t help the Senate by failing to make a public case for the GOP reforms. Not once did he explain, for example, that paring back ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion for able-bodied adults would protect health care for the truly needy. His failure to master even basic policy details made him useless as a public advocate.

The question is what they do now. Mr. Trump and the GOP are to some extent a shotgun marriage, and a major political risk from the health-care defeat is that Mr. Trump concludes he should start running against the GOP majority. The Steve Bannon wing of the White House would welcome a blowup as they try to rebrand the GOP as a nativist, protectionist movement. They might prefer to run in 2020 against Mr. Schumer than with Mr. McConnell.

But that advice is deadly for Mr. Trump too. He still needs a GOP majority to pass his agenda as much as Republicans need him to sign it. They need each other in particular this autumn to raise the debt ceiling, press deregulation, and pass a budget and tax reform. Failure on that agenda after the health-care fiasco will open the door to a Democratic House—which means nonstop anti-Trump investigations and perhaps impeachment. The best defense against mutual assured political destruction is legislative success in the fall.

Appeared in the August 11, 2017, print edition.

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