With DACA Decision, Trump Again Highlights GOP Divisions
The Republican bounty from Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential victory last November was the rare opportunity it afforded the GOP to enact an agenda without Democratic input. Because Republicans won control of the White House and both houses of Congress, nothing could inhibit them—in theory—from passing their preferred legislation. This happy scenario was the culmination of Republican fantasy: As the veteran conservative activist Grover Norquist once put it, Republicans needed only to elect a president “with enough working digits to handle a pen” to sign those bills into law.
Under Trump, Norquist’s fantasy has given way to a sobering reality. Rather than sign off on a succession of Republican bills, President Trump has instead managed to exacerbate nearly every major division within the GOP, whether cultural or political.
His controversial decision on Tuesday to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program next March, absent a legislative fix from Congress in the interim, is the latest example of this tendency. At a time when congressional Republicans are desperately trying to mount a push for tax reform, Trump’s action has saddled them with an unwanted responsibility to address the fates of 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who could soon face the prospect of being deported. The GOP’s task is all the more unpleasant due to the fact that Republicans overwhelmingly voted against a 2010 bill, the DREAM Act, that would have granted citizenship to this same category of immigrants. Trump has ensured that they’ll be forced to reckon with it anyway. “Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning.
For Republicans, this has become a distressingly familiar exercise. Trump’s choice to start off his presidency by attempting to repeal Obamacare exposed a different sort of tension: the one between Republicans’ health-care policy of cutting back government aid, particularly Medicaid, and the well-being of Republican voters, many of whom depend on that program. Trump’s failed effort highlighted his party’s deeply unpopular policies without winning the budget savings its leaders sought.
The president’s largely uncritical response to the racist violence at last month’s rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., was another example of Trump’s habit of inflaming intraparty sensitivities—in this case, Republicans’ questionable commitment to racial equality. Although Republican voters approved of Trump’s response by more than a 3-to-1 margin, according to a CBS News poll, Americans overall strongly disapproved, leaving Republican politicians awkwardly caught in the middle.
Trump’s Aug. 27 pardon of Joe Arpaio, which spared the former Arizona sheriff a jail sentence for criminal contempt related to his treatment of undocumented immigrants, was yet another example of Trump’s actions highlighting a division within the GOP. His pardon undermined the party’s supposed commitment to law and order, necessitating a round of awkward disapprovals from Republican members of Congress who resented the position their president had put them in.
Despite their mounting complaints about their president, Republican members of Congress are largely responsible for their own plight. Trump couldn’t expose these fissures and hypocrisies if they weren’t so widespread. But a defter president would work hard to minimize these discord, rather than exposing it again and again.
In theory, presidential leadership could help solve Republican dilemmas like how to address DACA. “If only Nixon could go to China, only Trump can do bi-partisan immigration reform, in part because of his credibility with the Republican base on this issue,” says Michael Steel, who was a top aide to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Often, Trump makes matters more difficult for Republicans by declining to specify what policy he supports. On health care, he praised a bill passed by the House, only to turn around and criticize it later. On the issue of resolving DACA, Trump has expressed no clear preference at all—besides his desire for Congress to hurry up and fix the problem.
This has angered prominent members of his party. “Congress has to act,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio told the Miami Herald. “But on this matter, the White House and the president will have to lead.”
There’s nothing preventing Trump from doing so, just as there’s nothing preventing Republicans from carrying out their legislative agenda. Right now, however, the belief that either is likely to occur seems increasingly fantastical.