In the days and weeks after Donald Trump's shock election upset of Hillary Clinton, there was a lot of heady talk among Republicans. They would quickly repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass sweeping tax reform. Easy peasy. And with GOP control of both the White House and Congress, Republicans would effectively disappear the entire Obama presidency. Wipe it clean away. Like it never happened!
Look where we are now, entering the Summer of Comey with the Washington atmosphere thickened by talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. The bold Trumpublican policy agenda? Obviously dead in such a toxic political environment. Right?
The Trump agenda is not dead yet.
Trumponomics wasn't exactly in great shape before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. While the GOP managed to get its ObamaCare replacement bill out of the House, Senate Republicans seem determined to craft their own plan. And no one was seriously still talking about Trump signing a big tax cut by August. Maybe August 2018 is more realistic. Or 2019. The recent government funding bill didn't even include dough for Trump's megawall, the centerpiece policy of his candidacy.
And it's true that history suggests presidential scandal can kill ambitious policy agendas. In 1974, President Richard Nixon and Sen. Edward Kennedy were thought to be near a bipartisan compromise on comprehensive health-care reform when Watergate broke. In 1998, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had cooked up a joint plan to reform Medicare and Social Security, as well as a political blueprint for passage. The first public step, according to historian Steven Gillon's 2008 book The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation, was for Clinton to announce the initiative in his January State of the Union address. But a week before that speech, The Washington Post became the first mainstream media outlet to break the news about Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his attempt to cover it up. At that moment, Gillon writes, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles knew "that a potentially great moment had been lost."
So yes, perhaps Trump's opportunity for major legislative action has been lost as well. But that theory depends in part on the idea that the president needs to play a key, action-forcing role for Congress to accomplish anything significant. The truth is, he doesn't.
Until at least FDR, Congress was the dominant branch of government. Perhaps Trump's chaotic White House will empower congressional Republicans to once again lead the way.
Of course Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan might prefer to have a capable White House providing guidance and leadership to help bridge congressional policy differences. And in an ideal world, it would be a huge asset to have a popular president travel the country and use his bully pulpit to push for reform. But the absence of those things doesn't need to result in Capitol Hill paralysis. As it is, the Senate continues to work on health reform, including bipartisan talks among Senate moderates. Certainly Ryan will not easily abandon his dream of tax reform, even if it means accomplishing it through the reconciliation process with just Republican votes. In fact, the House Ways and Means Committee is today holding a hearing on tax reform. And no matter how much they claim the Trump presidency to be illegitimate, Democrats likely will work with Republicans where there is potential common ground, such as infrastructure spending.
And obviously, Trump will most likely sign any bill Congress puts in front of him.
Of course, the health-care reform effort could founder. And if Republicans pass tax reform, it is likely to be more a straight-forward tax rate cut than a complete reworking of the tax code, as Ryan originally hoped. It would almost certainly be smaller and less ambitious than the versions floated thus far. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that a tax overhaul musnt't worsen the U.S. budget deficit, though it's unclear how Republicans will make the math work without a border tax or curtailing tax breaks. But that requirement would seem to rule out massive tax cuts.
All of this is subject to the vagaries of the evolving Trump-Russia-Comey affair, too. Right now, congressional Republicans are reacting to the news cycle rather than devising longer-term strategy. It might be awhile before that changes. And all the while, the calendar keeping moving toward the 2018 midterms.
But to paraphrase Billy Crystal's Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, the Republican agenda is only mostly dead. And there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.