6 possibilities for when conservative Republicans might start acting like conservatives
President Trump has a lot of power. His party controls Congress, and he’s poised to reestablish a 5–4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But his behavior has lived down #NeverTrump’s expectations.
There’s the easily disproved lies, about inauguration crowd size, massive voter fraud, and more. He disgraced the CIA’s Memorial Wall with a speech that complained about the media rather than honoring intelligence officers who sacrificed their lives for the United States, and inappropriately brought loyal staffers to cheer him on. And his communications have damaged America’s relationships with friends and allies.
In his first two weeks in office, Trump has already violated conservative principle, governing by executive order rather than legislation (even more egregious since Republican majorities in Congress make it unnecessary). His deal with Carrier to keep a few jobs in Indiana is crony capitalism, determining business outcomes not by market incentives, but by government connections. His moral equivalence between the United States and Russia makes a mockery of American exceptionalism, and his border wall is a massive spending project that wouldn’t even keep out most illegal immigrants.
Trump pleased conservatives by nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Otherwise, his performance raises the question of what it will take for Congressional Republicans to oppose him.
The Senate is closely divided, 52–48. With Democrats mostly united against Trump, a few Republican Senators could block legislation, refuse to confirm nominees, and launch investigations.
Here are 6 possibilities for when Senate, or even House Republicans may stand up to the president.
1 — National Security and Foreign Policy Missteps Senators John McCain (AZ) and Lindsey Graham (SC) prioritize foreign policy. They’re under less political pressure than many Republicans: McCain just won reelection and probably won’t run again; Graham isn’t up for reelection until 2020. Both serve on the Armed Services committee, which McCain chairs. Together, they published a statement criticizing Trump’s travel/refugee ban as detrimental to American security. (I wrote about this more here).
McCain and Graham also want to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, against the White House’s wishes. Joined by Marco Rubio (FL) — who just won another 6-year term — they considered rejecting Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, for his ties to Russia. Blocking a cabinet nominee is one of the most prominent ways Senators can rebuke a president, but in the end, all three voted to confirm.
However, McCain, Graham and other foreign policy-minded Republican Senators may be reaching the end of their rope. In a contentious phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump denounced America’s commitment to accept 1,250 refugees currently in an Australian detention center (the White House later said America would honor the promise), bragged about his electoral victory, and hung up after 25 minutes (they were scheduled to talk for an hour). A recent poll found that Republicans consider Australia America’s #1 ally.
McCain reassured Australia, telling Ambassador Joe Hockey that Americans “value our historic alliance, honor the sacrifice of the Australians who have served and are serving by our side, and remain committed to the safer, freer, and better world that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote.” Republican Senators Bob Corker (TN) and Cory Gardner (CO) also reached out to Ambassador Hockey, as did some Democrats.
All of these verbal criticisms, no matter how pointed or justified, do not check the White House. However, McCain and Graham will keep pulling on the Russia thread, perhaps joined by other Trump critics on the Armed Services Committee, such as Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse.
Additionally, in an unprecedented move, the president elevated his chief political strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council’s Principles Committee. Some legal scholars believe this requires Senate confirmation.
Bannon opposes the American-led international order, which runs counter to the vision championed by many Republicans, past and present, of the United States as leader of the free world. His influence was evident in Trump’s nationalist inaugural address. Demanding a hearing and rejecting Bannon for NSC would provide foreign policy Republicans an opportunity to assert themselves.
2 — Civil Liberties Before losing his bid for the Republican nomination, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul attracted attention fighting for libertarian causes, such as criminal justice reform and curtailing the surveillance state. He’s been quieter over the last year. But he just won reelection, and if Trump follows through on some of his threats to curtail freedom of the press, oversteps as he tries to impose “law and order,” or otherwise attacks Americans’ civil liberties, Paul could stand in opposition.
3 — Free Trade Rand also supports free trade, as do many conservatives. If Trump wants tariffs or other protectionist policies — or tries to start a trade war with China, Mexico, or anyone else — he’ll face some Republican resistance. However, the president might get support from the left’s anti-trade contingent, led by Bernie Sanders, so blocking protectionism would require more than a few free trade conservatives.
4 — Not Until They Get Their Tax Cuts Along with the Supreme Court, the possibility of enacting a conservative economic agenda led many otherwise reluctant Republicans to support Donald Trump. Congressional Republicans need Trump to sign their tax cuts and other domestic legislation, which is probably the biggest factor holding the GOP together.
This especially applies to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He criticized Trump during the campaign, but never withdrew his endorsement, and has tried to mend fences since the election. Ryan’s top priority is his economic plan, and there’s no chance he’ll buck the president until it passes. Many Senate Republicans feel the same.
But once their domestic agenda becomes law, Congressional Republicans can stand on principle in other areas.
5 — When He Tries to Spend a Lot Trump broke with conservative policy by vowing to increasing spending. He promised to spend more on the military, pass a large infrastructure package, and maintain spending on entitlements.
Conservatives attacked Trump for it, but it didn’t hurt him with Republican primary voters.
Democrats have floated the strategy of taking Trump up on his promises, aiming to anger small government conservatives and split the GOP. And while most liberals don’t want to increase military spending, the rest of Trump’s big government proposals align with their policy preferences.
Problem is, cutting spending is something Republicans care about when Democrats are president.
George W. Bush increased spending more than any president since LBJ, passing a new entitlement, Medicare Part D (prescription drugs). Even Reagan increased spending faster than Clinton or Obama.
It’s worth noting that Republicans never controlled both houses of Congress when Reagan was president. The GOP controlled at least one house of Congress for six years under both Clinton and Obama, and deserve some credit for the spending restraint during those periods. But in the 2000s they had unified control of government for the first time since the 1950s and spent like crazy.
When Trump tries to increase spending, some conservatives will object. But many Republicans will make their peace with it. Infrastructure spending will provide a short-term economic boost, making the party look good heading into the next election. Most risks of debt accumulation are longer-term. After eight years of insisting the deficit was a national crisis under Obama, they’ll find their way back to Dick Cheney’s claim that “deficits don’t matter.”
6 — Never The final possibility: Congressional Republicans never oppose Trump. Some Republicans are right-wing populists. Others like anything that angers liberals. And partisan loyalty is a powerful force.
Conservatives will criticize Trump, as Ryan did during the campaign, and McCain is doing now. But when push comes to shove, they might confirm his nominees, pass his agenda, and prevent investigations into Russia ties, conflicts of interest, or anything else.
There’s also an element of self-interest, as most Americans judge the president’s party by the government’s performance, not individual Senators’ actions. In other words, Congressional Republicans may hesitate to block Trump, even if it’s the right thing to do, because it will help the Democrats.
And they’re afraid of primary voters.
While Trump’s national approval rating is underwater (44% approve and 53% disapprove in the latest CNN poll), most Republicans support him (90%-8%). Few House or Senate seats are competitive in the general election, making the primary the real contest. If Congressional Republicans fear opposing Trump will anger enough primary voters to cost them their seats, they might just grin and bear it.