Waiting for Trump's Collapse

Is there an opening for a GOP challenger? 2019 is when we'll find out.

I argued yesterday that the president is trapped in a crisis of his own making. Donald Trump promised a border wall, but never meant to honor that promise, as he never honors anything he promises, because he is a man wholly without honor.

But the Republican base took him seriously as well as literally, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, the right-wing media universe turned on him, making the 13-day shutdown of the federal government a political crisis only Fox can solve.

I say I don’t fully understand why Fox News and other right-wing media turned on the president, but the most likely reason is the midterms. With the Democrats taking control today of the US House of Representatives, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and others surely sensed the noose tightening around this president’s neck. If there’s going to be a time for getting money for that border wall, it’s now.

But what does this signify?

Well, I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but it means this president is weak. He was weak, is weak and is going to get much weaker. There is no return on the party’s investment now that the Democrats have the power of subpoena coupled with the moral and political interest in getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016.

Everything they turn up between now and 2020 will form the basis for whatever legislative agenda they will be poised to act on once the Democrats take the presidency again (whenever that is). If the only way of getting out of a jam of your own making is for Fox News to lie for you, you are, by definition, a weak president.

It should be no surprise that Nancy Pelosi is willing to risk looking downright obstructionist in the Democrats’ stand off with the president. On the “Today” show this morning, the new House Speaker, when asked if she’s willing to compromise and give the president more money for a border wall, said: “We can go through the back and forth. No. How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall."

Some liberals are saying (on Twitter, of course) that Congressional Democrats have already compromised. First, because they were willing, last year, to give Trump $25 billion for “border security” in exchange for DACA protections. He refused. Second, because they are now offering $1.3 billion. Trump says that’s not enough.

These facts matter greatly, of course, but noting them in isolation is like seeing lots of trees but no forest. Even if the Democrats had offered nothing in exchange for keeping the government up and running, the president is not in a position to ask for anything more, because this president is just too weak to make demands.

How weak? Consider that Pelosi, in the same “Today” interview, said that it’s an “open discussion in terms of the law” whether a sitting president can be indicted. I find that remarkable coming from someone as cautious as Pelosi. This is not a woman who says anything without considering the politics of it. If she’s saying a sitting president can be indicted, she’s prepared to be on the winning side of that discussion.

Also consider the matter of Mitt Romney. On the day before the Democrats took over the House, the senator-elect from Utah wrote an op-ed excoriating the president. Yes, it’s debatable whether that amounts to anything, empirically, but beyond doubt is the fact that it’s highly unusual for a GOP senator to attack the character of a sitting GOP president. What’s more, there’s enormous risk in doing that, as Trump remains popular with the base. That Romney did such a thing might not be all that meaningful in the fullness of time, but what you cannot say is that it was meaningless.

Historically, when presidents have grown as weak as Trump is, they get challenged from the inside. I don’t know if Mitt Romney wants to play that role, because playing that role has historically meant losing. It happened with Ronald Reagan versus Gerald Ford in 1976; with Ted Kennedy versus Jimmy Carter in 1980; and with Pat Buchanan versus George HW Bush in 1992. Reagan, Kennedy and Buchanan all lost.

But if someone does play that role—John Kasich, perhaps—that could spell doom. Historically, while a same-party challenger can’t defeat an incumbent, he nonetheless wounds the incumbent enough for the opposing party to win. Reagan, Kennedy and Buchanan all lost, but Ford, Carter and Bush were all one-term presidents.

I think Romney’s op-ed was meant to protect the Republican Party’s credibility more than it was a shot across the bow. But reaction to it will surely inform private discussions as to whether to challenge the president. The AP reported that it “was widely interpreted as a sign of encouragement for Republicans including outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake to take on Trump.”

Mike Murphy, Romney’s former strategist, told NPR Wednesday that we’ll know if there’s a real opening by Labor Day of this year, or a bit later. “I think the early strategy is not appropriate in a situation where you're trying to deal with what could be a political collapse of an incumbent president in your party,” Murphy said.

Is there an opening? 2019 is when we'll find out.

—John Stoehr


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