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Several years ago, journalist Megan McArdle gifted us with an axiom about politics that would come to be known as Jane’s Law. It says, simply, that “the devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.”
As of this article’s posting, the Republican Party controls more state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and congressional seats than in any period since 1929, a year after Herbert Hoover crushed Al Smith in a 17-point landslide. By all accounts, the Republicans should be as comfortably smug as they can be.
Instead, America’s governing party is the one acting like it lost the election. With the legislative year almost over with nary a victory, the party has revealed just how deep its divisions are. Approval ratings for Mitch McConnell stand at 18% in his own state of ruby-red Kentucky while Paul Ryan is about as popular as Nancy Pelosi. President Trump, just a week ago, made the shocking move of sidelining Republican legislative leaders and instead hatching a deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to extend the debt ceiling for three months instead of a whole year. Pelosi also mentioned that Trump promised to sign a DREAM act bill to legalize children of illegal immigrants, something that is sure to ruffle the feathers of Trump’s base. Meanwhile, the recently departed Steve Bannon has been slamming the Republican party leaders and promising to push primary challengers against Republicans elected officials.
While McConnell’s lack of popularity and failure to pass promised policies are no doubt a factor, Axios reports that Trump has also been motivated to ditch his party due to a shocking realization that “People really f@&@ing hate me.” Since making the deal, he has been ecstatic with the positive press coverage, showering him praises for being so bipartisan.
From a purely political transaction view, it makes sense. He’s never going to lose his base and going with the establishment Republicans have not led to any success so far. By trying to appeal to more people by cutting deals with Schumer and Pelosi, it may be that Trump is trying to be an independent President, if not officially than unofficially, as the New York Times suggests. It doesn’t seem too outrageous. He’s already been attacking Republicans quite viciously, and don’t forget that this is the man who once ran for the Reform Party nomination. By untethering himself from the party, it frees him to reach out to Schumer for infrastructure and McConnell for taxes. Sixteen-dimensional chess, right? Being an independent President beholden to no party may be the key to turning this Presidency around from the underwater approval ratings that only look better compared to Hillary Clinton’s.
Or maybe not.
Ignoring the President’s failure to do any of that in the past, the idea of being an independent President — cutting deals with both sides — seems unlikely to lead to any lasting popularity for the ratings-obsessed President. It’s not as though Democrats, who have wrapped themselves in the flag of anti-Trump resistance and have expressed dislike for him on a fundamental level, will suddenly like Trump because he did some things they like. Just ask John “The Maverick” McCain how many Democrat votes he got in 2008. And what about the Republicans? While Trump certainly has a base that will never leave him, his approval amongst Republicans has been steadily declining. While traditional Republicans may right now be satisfied with Trump confirming judges and cheerleading on tax and social policies, the President has yet to give them any hard policy wins outside of Gorsuch’s confirmation from five months ago. Since then, “repeal and replace” has died a slow painful death, and tax reform isn’t any less complicated. The optimism exists because of what policies and reforms may happen, but what if what “may happen” is Trump making deals with Schumer while ignoring McConnell? How optimistic would they remain? Probably the majority would stick with him, but even a slight bleed-off is dangerous when you lost the popular vote and won the electoral college by winning three states by a combined margin of less than 80,000 votes.
Of course, maybe the President thinks he can get through this despite all the headwinds. He slayed 16 other Republicans on his first run for office. He beat a former Secretary of State and wife of a previous President with all the connections and wealth that entails. Trump’s leap into politics has been nothing but charging straight into battles that political wisdom would deem “unthinkable.” After all, though, what’s one more “unthinkable” act for Donald J. Trump?
But history is littered with the corpses of those who styled themselves the next Alexander or Caesar only to be horribly wrong. One such would-be-Conqueror was President John Tyler. Tyler, having ascended to the Presidency after the unexpected death of William Henry Harrison, found his ideas totally opposed by most of the Whig leadership and aligning more with the Democrats. After some high profile fights, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs. The Democrats, while happy to cut deals with him for their own benefit, wanted nothing to do with the embattled President. With no political home, Tyler tried to form his own independent Democratic-Republican party. The plan would be aborted when, while he and his Cabinet were onboard the USS Princeton, one of the warship’s guns exploded, killing half of his Cabinet. Nevertheless, he persisted, pursuing both the nominations of the Whig and the Democratic parties. He lost both. The Whigs hated him for leaving them while the Democrats, whom Tyler spent most of his Presidency working with, just simply preferred one of their own.
While Tyler lived in a different era and nation, concerned with different issues, the general structure of the federal government has not changed. We still live in a two party system where independents without major party support are generally doomed. Congress still chooses to pass legislation, and courts can still revoke overreaching executive actions.
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump did the unthinkable. But a huge mistake lies in believing that because of that, he is capable of all. In the past few months of his Presidency, Trump himself has experienced the limits of executive power and consequences of casting aside the advice of experts. Governing is far harder than campaigning, and believing that he can crack these institutions that curtailed the ambitions of 43 Presidents before him, that is what’s truly unthinkable.