Because most Republicans didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the presidency, they had to cobble together a governing strategy on very short notice, but it was obvious many months before the election that if Trump were to win, party leaders would ignore his racism, corruption, volatility, and ignorance to whatever extent was necessary to enact a meaningful legislative agenda.
This was a morally hideous pact, but it bears superficial resemblance to a very familiar, unremarkable pattern. New presidents come in, often at the height of popularity, and they and their congressional allies make the most of it for as long as possible, until recriminations can no longer be suppressed.
This is how Democrats operated when President Barack Obama came into office, and even how Republicans operated in the pre-9/11 months of George W. Bush’s first term (though neither congressional party was working hand in glove with a shamelessly unethical person whose intemperate tweets about cable news segments threatened national security).
Just as now, the idea in 2001 and 2009 was to get as much done as possible, as quickly as possible—to consciously take on water and then bail out as much as possible later on, ahead of the next election. The difference is that Republicans today are accepting all the risks their predecessors did, but with few guaranteed returns to show for it.
It is obviously very early in the 115th Congress, but it’s easy enough to look back and compare where the Republican government is today with where previous unified governments were in the past.
By this time in 2009, Obama had expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover more children in families living near poverty, and had signed legislation making it easier for women suffering from pay discrimination to file lawsuits. By February 17, he had signed an $800 billion economic rescue bill, and his congressional caucuses were aligned in principle behind the health care reform architecture that ultimately became Obamacare. He had filled nearly every cabinet vacancy, with people who were qualified to run their respective departments, and none of his executive orders had triggered global crisis or destroyed the country’s credibility.
The Bush administration had a slower start, but this was at least partially attributable to the fact that Bush’s transition didn’t begin until after the Supreme Court had installed him into the presidency in mid-December. By June, he’d passed a large income tax cut, with modest bipartisan support.
Trump has thus far signed one bill: to exempt his secretary of defense from the law prohibiting commissioned officers from running the Pentagon unless they’ve been retired for seven or more years. As you’d expect of any Republican White House, his aides are drawing up plans to deregulate polluters and financial practices—doing the kinds of things that have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying “there is a high level of satisfaction with the new administration.”
This is another way of saying Republicans on the Hill are getting some things they want.
But they are also getting to cast votes on the worst, most unqualified, and corrupt cabinet in modern history. They are getting to answer for Trump’s broadsides against the judiciary, and to clean up his disastrous ad hoc haranguing of American allies. They are getting to pretend McConnell’s decision to discipline Senator Elizabeth Warren for quoting Coretta Scott King’s criticism of Jeff Sessions—in the middle of black history month—was a stroke of genius. (Corralling nearly every Republican senator to vote for that censure was apparently part of that master plan.) They are getting to make excuses for Trump’s undisguised efforts to enrich himself and his family. And they’re getting to do all this as members of the most important national institution to fully corrupt itself on Trump’s behalf. (Democrats, judges, consumer brands, civil society organizations, and government bureaucrats, have all conducted themselves with enough basic integrity to preserve a glimmer of hope that Trump can’t just shamble Kool-Aid man-style through the entire social fabric.)
It’s possible that a major payoff awaits the GOP. Perhaps they really will repeal and replace Obamacare before the end of the year, even though, according to Senator Bob Corker, “there’s not any real discussion taking place right now.” They seem no closer to a major supply-side tax reform or infrastructure bill or welfare rollback either.
Republicans will presumably fill the Supreme Court’s vacancy in the coming weeks, but that is less a dividend Trump is paying them than one they carried over themselves from the last Congress. And their nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is already condemning Trump in closed door meetings with Democratic senators.
Trump, meanwhile, is about as unpopular now as Bush was in late 2005—before the Democratic Party’s midterm landslide in 2006, but after he had locked in his biggest legislative accomplishments. Republicans made a Faustian bargain with the president, and they’re in the process of getting stiffed. It’s just unclear why they thought Trump would treat them any differently than anyone else he’s partnered with.