Donald Trump’s address before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday has taken on added significance in the past 48 hours, for the simple reason that his agenda is falling apart in Congress, in a way that can only be rebuilt by qualities Trump has yet to exhibit in his presidency—primarily, coalition-building around specific details.
First of all, the Affordable Care Act overhaul continues to flounder. After a leaked draft of the House Republican repeal-and-replace bill went public, hard-line conservatives immediately attacked it, likely leaving the package short of the required votes. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Mark Walker, chair of the Republican Study Committee, whose membership includes two-thirds of the Republican caucus, rejected the use of refundable tax credits as an “entitlement expansion.” They also don’t like the tax on employer health-care plans used to pay for it.
This is the main method of delivering insurance-premium support in the plan, so effectively Meadows and Walker were saying no to the replacement. The House replacement isn’t exactly generous—it’s mostly a transfer from poor to rich—so if conservatives can’t get behind that, they can’t get behind anything. Senate hard-liners Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee similarly condemned anything other than the “full repeal” in the 2015 reconciliation package vetoed by President Obama (which was not full repeal, by the way, but let’s move on).
This has left a desperate Paul Ryan considering putting forward the very “repeal and delay” package that Republicans in Congress and the President already rejected. The theory goes that no Republican would vote against a straight repeal (oh yeah, just watch them), and the details can be hashed out later. This is precisely where we were at the beginning of the Congress, so two months of wrangling has led nowhere. It’s an admission of failure more than anything.
For Ryan, getting repeal out of the way is critical because it’s the first domino in a sequence that includes tax reform. Because repealing the ACA cuts a bunch of taxes on the rich and sets a lower revenue baseline, it affords Republicans the opportunity to cut taxes more heavily. So tax reform is stuck without a decision on health care. And by the way, tax reform is completely fractured as well, with retailers and manufacturers and their congressional allies at each other’s throats over the controversial border adjustment tax on imports.
Normally in these situations, a presidential speech before Congress is just what the doctor ordered. The president can set the agenda and build a path for his party to follow. This is actually what congressional Republicans want. “At the end of the day, the most powerful voice is going to be the president’s,” Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) said in a plea for the White House to smooth over tax reform. “What the president can say is that the plan that gets presented to the conference is the one you need to vote ‘yes’ on,” added Representative Bill Flores (R-OK), talking about Obamacare.
So let’s get this straight. A group of hundreds of professional politicians who’ve been waiting for years to take total control of government are hinging their future success on what Donald Trump says in a speech?
Have they seen his speeches?
Trump is just not constitutionally equipped to bust out a detailed set of instructions for Republicans to follow. He’s more of an ideas guy (setting aside the quality of the ideas). Saying “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated” and walking away from the podium isn’t going to resolve anything.
Now let’s be clear: Republicans don’t actually have to be told how to vote by someone who had to determine whether Snooki should stay in the boardroom a couple years ago. Members of Congress look to the president to dictate events because they’re too cowardly to press their own ideas. They want Trump to use his political capital and provide cover for them.
But this is just not a core competency for Trump. He relies on vagaries so he can be all things to all people. He’s contradicted himself on health care and taxes numerous times. His staff appears as torn about these high-profile issues as Congress is. The president and his top health-care adviser, HHS Secretary Tom Price, have alternately said they will and won’t be writing a legislative blueprint. The same ambiguity exists on taxes. These issues have been hanging out for months and Trump hasn’t taken clear positions. Indeed, early indications are tonight’s speech will be “high level” and without details—which will fail to arrest the slide into legislative irrelevancy.
And even if Trump broke with tradition and delivered a Clinton-esque bullet-point agenda tonight, Republicans begging for clarity will suddenly become all bent by things being so clear. Take for example the one area where the Trump White House is required to offer a formal blueprint: the budget. Trump announced a $54 billion increase in military spending, offset by cuts to domestic programs (or just a “revved-up economy,” depending on what day you listen to Trump). Immediately, Republicans objected, in the time-honored tradition of pronouncing a presidential budget dead on arrival. “I am not one who thinks you can pay for an increase in [military] spending on the backs of domestic discretionary programs,” said Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA). Other pain-caucus types are angered that the request doesn’t address larger programs like Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. And the military hawks think the $54 billion boost isn’t enough!
The moral to the story is that Republicans don’t want to be responsible for governing, and also don’t want to be dictated to in governing. I think they liked it better when they took a lot of recesses, as long as there aren’t any town halls.
This fairly toxic environment makes pulling off tonight’s speech tricky for even the most polished orator. And that’s not who will step to the podium tonight, with practically his entire legislative agenda at stake.