Trump Can’t Win the Blame Game
Like many conflicts, the tiff between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump began with a seemingly inconsequential remark. In a speech last week to a Rotary Club in northern Kentucky, Mr. McConnell said the president had shown “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
This is accurate. Mr. Trump frequently says things like “We are moving very quickly” (referring to health care, on Feb. 27), “We are going to have tax reform at some point very soon” (April 12), and that his administration’s infrastructure plan will “take off like a rocket ship” (June 8).
Mr. Trump also often plays down the difficulty of legislating, as when he declared in March that repealing and replacing ObamaCare would be “such an easy one,” and told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo in April that tax reform “will be easier than health care.”
Rather than ignoring Mr. McConnell’s observation, however, the president scorched him with a barrage of fiery tweets. Shortly thereafter Mr. Trump piled on at a news conference, publicly blaming Mr. McConnell for coming up one vote short on the Senate’s bill to repeal ObamaCare.
If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Trump then came close to calling for the majority leader to step down. When asked by reporters whether he would like Mr. McConnell to resign, Mr. Trump implied that if the senator couldn’t pull off health-care reform, tax reform and an infrastructure bill—“a very easier one”—he would revisit the question.
Blaming others may be cathartic for Mr. Trump, but it weakens the presidency and inhibits his agenda. Republicans responded to the president’s criticism with a flurry of statements in the Senate leader’s support. Legislators never like it when a chief executive—even of their own party—presumes to dictate who presides in their chambers.
If Mr. Trump continues to attack congressional Republicans, the GOP could lose its majorities in the House and Senate in 2018.
That outcome might be welcomed by fringe elements in the party whose primary interest is defeating the so-called establishment rather than advancing sound policy. But it would be a tremendous defeat for Mr. Trump if Democrats captured majorities in Congress. His agenda would be obstructed and his judicial nominees stymied. His administration would be buried in congressional subpoenas and stuck in front of ugly oversight hearings for two years. Then voters would blame him in 2020 for not getting things done. After all, he’s the president and is responsible for what happens on his watch.
Mr. Trump’s success is tied to the ability of congressional Republicans to win major legislative victories on health care, tax reform, infrastructure and other issues. In turn, achieving those triumphs depends largely on the competence of Mr. Trump’s White House.
So where are the administration’s focused efforts to use the presidential megaphone to explain the GOP agenda and persuade voters? An early-hours tweet may enthuse true believers, but 140 characters won’t sway most Americans and may even repel them.
Where are the speeches explaining the plan to replace ObamaCare and why it would be better? Where are the Oval Office addresses on why tax reform would produce better jobs and bigger paychecks? Where are the choruses echoing the president’s arguments for an infrastructure bill? They are nowhere to be found.
Missing also are the administration’s legislative proposals, such as an actual infrastructure bill. Although the White House website touts a trillion-dollar price tag for Mr. Trump’s program, it devotes just 314 words to outlining its provisions. As a reference point, that is fewer than half the words in this column—not enough for a major piece of legislation.
Furthermore, the president ought to lower expectations by telling Americans how lengthy and difficult the legislating process will be. He should explain that he’s more concerned about doing things right than doing them quickly. Voters will be pleasantly surprised when he delivers.
The president must stop stepping on his own agenda as he did Tuesday during remarks on the Charlottesville fracas. Having backed off from his initial controversial comments, he once again equated the white supremacists and neo-Nazis with the counterprotesters who consisted mostly of University of Virginia students and local residents. The former was almost exclusively a hate group, the latter not.
Mr. Trump must recognize that success depends on his ability to lead congressional Republicans in delivering concrete solutions to problems facing the middle class. Like all presidents before him, Mr. Trump will be judged by results. He must focus on doing better in the coming months than he did in his first seven.
Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley ” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).
Appeared in the August 17, 2017, print edition.