The Washingtonian consensus surrounding President Trump has undergone a kaleidoscopic shift. Where once there was certainty that this political neophyte was a flame-out and a disaster that would drag the Republican Party down with his rhetoric, behavior, or some combination of both, now the swamp seems increasingly resigned to believing that three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and the political imperviousness of Donald J. Trump. And they’re not so sure about the taxes.
For those of us who have stubbornly stuck by this president, this shift carries more than a whiff of grim satisfaction. The phrase “I told you so” has no doubt been heard in multiple quarters where Republicans gather.
And so it should! Trump is the most naturally gifted politician of our age. You don’t achieve the unprecedented step of winning the presidency with no governing experience, on a shoestring budget, without being just that. However, in exulting in his victory, the president should beware of excessive hubris. Storm clouds are prone to gather at precisely the moment when one ceases to keep a watchful eye for them. In fact, some already are, as questions are arising about the president’s policy commitments – questions that could endanger his relationship with his base, if allowed to persist.
Some of these questions are likely due more to the president’s administration than to Trump himself. For example, the Council of Economic Advisers recently issued a report suggesting further cuts to the already embattled 340B drug pricing program, which requires pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs at lower prices to certain select groups of hospitals and clinics in exchange for access to the Medicare Part B market: cuts that also made their way into the White House’s FY2019 budget. Not only would such an attempt to slash a cost control policy undermine the president’s commitment to lowering drug prices, but it would also damage his ability to speak as a defender of “deplorable” America. Rural hospitals in Trump districts benefit disproportionately from 340B, and while it might please business-first “conservatives” like the Koch brothers to see the program slashed, those “conservatives” are not the people who Trump was elected to serve. Trump knows that, of course, but one wonders how long it will take before he figures out that his White House is stacked with people who don’t want to acknowledge it.
And speaking of “business first” conservatives and their quisling allies, let’s talk about immigration for a second. In the past, I have argued that President Trump had the potential to use the DACA issue for a grand bargain on immigration akin to LBJ’s successes with civil rights. Certainly, Trump made steps toward that with his daring offer to legalize 1.8 million so-called “DREAMers” in exchange for an end to chain migration, an end to the so-called “diversity lottery,” and funding for his famous border wall. Given the fanaticism of the Democrats’ commitment to importing new voters, this seemed at first like a clever, Machiavellian bargaining chip intended to showcase their disingenuousness on the DACA question.
Unfortunately, since then, Trump’s plan has been brought up for a vote in the Senate, and something unexpected occurred – namely, mass defections from his own party. I say this was unexpected because, while defections from the relatively Trump-leery Senate GOP caucus are tragically not surprising, these defections occurred on surprising grounds. The problem wasn’t, as some might expect, that Trump was too firm on border security for the defectors. The problem was that he wasn’t firm enough.
And, apparently, that sense of infirmity is starting to spread beyond the Senate. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who took a hard line against the president’s approach, has started to attract favorable press for supposedly being better on immigration than Trump. Granted, these stories are almost certainly the creation of bitter #NeverTrump consultants trying to spur a primary challenge to the only president to challenge out of touch Washingtonian crony conservatism in decades. But Trump’s perceived willingness to make a deal – any deal – and the frustration therewith is real.
As with 340b, this is likely at least partially due to President Trump seeking to appease business firsters in his party, rather than the blue collar workers seeking cheaper drugs and higher wages who put him in office. In following these Pied Pipers, Trump is giving ammunition to those who diligently work to remove him from his invincible pedestal, and eventually from office. A good negotiator can get a deal, but only with his own people in his corner, and a president can only remain invulnerable so long as he protects his constituents. Trump should be cognizant of those facts before he plunges back into the fray.