There was a revealing moment in President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden announcement that he would declare a national emergency to commence the border wall construction he could not persuade Congress to fund. He said he was “very disappointed at certain people, a particular one, for not having pushed this faster.”
A reporter asked Trump if he was referring to former House Speaker Paul Ryan. “Let’s not talk about it,” the president replied.
It might be worth talking about whether Trump made a major miscalculation by being so deferential to the Republican Party’s governing class in the first two years of his presidency, when he had more leverage and a majority in the House. Much has been said about how things would be different if Trump tweeted less or spoke more often in the presidential tone he used in the State of the Union address. Less often is it contemplated whether pursuing a Trump agenda over the Ryan agenda would have improved the GOP’s position.
What does Trump have to show for his first two years in office? A tax cut, including a corporate tax reduction; conservative judges, including two solid appointments to the Supreme Court; deregulation; withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; moving the U.S. embassy in Israel Jerusalem; abrogating the Iran nuclear deal; ending the penalty associated with Obamacare’s individual mandate.
I support most of the above, though the tax cut could have been better designed to maximize political support. Still, virtually all of it could have been accomplished by a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. None of it was indispensable to winning Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin, which is why Trump sits in the Oval Office. Notably, with the exception of the way the Democratic onslaught against Brett Kavanaugh played in the red state Senate races, none of it helped Republicans in the midterm elections either.
To be fair, Trump has marched to the beat of his own drum on trade. He has altered immigration enforcement priorities in ways that demonstrate a seriousness about the border, while at the same time yielding optics that have arguably made getting tough on the issue less popular. And his overtures to North Korea would have been unthinkable to most administrations of either party. There are still many signs his impulses are different. But
It made sense for the famously vindictive Trump to make nice with Ryan and other Republican leaders upon taking office. The agenda Trump and Ryan held in common made conservatives invested in his presidency. That could yet prove helpful in the event the Robert Mueller probe leads to a serious impeachment effort. But once completed, more conventional Republicans had little incentive to help Trump on the wall. They have already rebuked him for his desire to wind down the wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
Syria and Afghanistan were among the first signs that Trump had belatedly realized that simply going along with the standard Republican program wasn’t going to get the job he was elected to do done. So too was the less well conceived decision to fight over immigration and the wall. His hawkish advisers weren’t winning the war in Afghanistan or providing a convincing rationale for remaining in Syria after vanquishing ISIS. Capitol Hill Republicans weren’t winning elections or even getting much legislation passed.
The problem is that it may be too late. Democrats now control the House and have little incentive to hand Trump major victories ahead of the 2020 elections. They sense they have him on the ropes. Republicans who are less enthusiastic about Trump are confident things will revert back to the pre-Trump norm once he is gone.
Trump had no clear way out of the wall stalemate given the current composition of Congress—thus the constitutionally questionable national emergency. But it is telling that his first veto was not of a massive spending bill that did not give him what he wanted on border security. It will instead likely be a veto of a congressional attempt to reassert its constitutional war powers by withholding support from a morally indefensible intervention in Yemen.
If Trump is hamstrung on immigration (and also confused, given his ad-libbed call for more legal immigrants in the State of the Union), he still has a chance to chart a different course on foreign policy. He missed a chance to put the Democrats on the defensive and score some populist points early, when he had the most political capital and even establishment Republicans were still in awe of his victory. If opportunity knocks again, Trump can’t afford to miss it a second time.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.