The GOP Is as Divided as Ever

Deep divisions that existed in the Republican Party before Trump was elected haven’t gone away.

Donald Trump’s victory was the biggest surprise of Election Night 2016. That shock overshadowed another, only slightly smaller, surprise: that the Republican Party won unified control of Washington. The GOP awoke the next day to find itself about to take charge of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives—on paper, unstoppable.

In the runup to the election, which nearly everyone expected Trump to lose, the focus of Republican energy was on the hotly anticipated civil war expected to break out in the wake of the party’s defeat between moderate, establishment Republicans, who wanted to steer the party away from the excesses of Trump, and the right-wing insurgents who helped carry Trump to victory in the primary. Overnight, the party’s focus shifted from its own internal differences to the great achievements suddenly within reach that only unified control of Washington allows.

Yet as we approach the six-month point of Trump’s presidency, the three big goals he has touted for his first year—the repeal of Obamacare, broad-based tax reform, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan—have made little headway, despite the fact that Democrats control nothing.

Most of the blame for the lack of momentum has fallen on Trump: His incessant Twitter outbursts, his hiring of controversial aides such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and his possible obstruction of justice surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey have inhibited Congress from focusing on the legislative agenda everyone envisioned when Trump was elected.

That’s not entirely wrong. But it’s overshadowed the deep divisions that existed in the Republican Party before Trump was elected—and haven’t gone away, even as the public’s attention has focused almost exclusively on Trump. These divisions are about to come to the fore, regardless of what Trump tweets or who he decides to fire next.

Trump’s lone semi-achievement—health care—is a good illustration of this dynamic. After a series of false starts, the House finally passed an Obamacare-repeal bill in May, but only after pushing it so far to the right that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 23 million fewer people will be insured as a result. Under a cloak of secrecy, Senate Republicans are trying to craft a more moderate alternative (though still one that would cause millions to go uninsured). Even if they succeed, though, the differences with their House counterparts mean there’s no guarantee legislation will ever make it into law.

The same dynamic afflicts Republicans as they struggle to pass a 2018 budget. Conservative hard-liners want to cut $400 billion in social spending to pay for tax reform, while more moderate, defense-oriented members want to increase military spending. “A lot of us are really, really frustrated right now by our inability to move,” Representative Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a member of both the Budget and Appropriations committees, lamented to Politico. “It’s a lot of divisive issues within the committee—which is also a reflection of the conference—that has dogged us for a long time. … There is absolutely no clarity into what we’re doing.” Without a budget, Republicans won’t be able to pass tax reform. And even if they agree on one, adoption of a 2018 budget resolution would have to wait until Congress finishes work on health care, which falls under the previous year’s budget resolution.

Most ominous of all from a global economic perspective, Republicans appear to be as divided over raising the debt limit as they were when a Democrat occupied the White House. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said repeatedly that the administration favors a “clean” debt-ceiling raise, ideally by the end of July. But here, too, conservative hard-liners are bucking their Republican colleagues. “Secretary Mnuchin believes it needs to be clean. I think the vast majority of the Republican conferences would not agree,” Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters on June 15.

For now, that division poses yet another problem that Republicans will have to tackle—soon. “We haven’t settled on a final way to address the debt ceiling any more than the Hill has,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney admitted the same day.

Even so, the prospect of a default, which would send shock waves through the global economy, is far enough off that White House officials are privately predicting an easy resolution. “We’re not going to shut down the government,” said a senior Trump official. “A lot of the public posturing is for show.”

If the Republican Party were truly unified, comments like this might be a source of reassurance. But as all these episodes remind us, the GOP is as divided as it ever was and White House promises don’t carry much weight. The chaos Trump routinely creates tends to overshadow this reality. But it’s lurking beneath the drama and could cause all sorts of problems for the GOP and for the broader economy—even if Republicans get their wish and Trump finally settles down.

    Joshua Green
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
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