White House

Trump's Success With Gorsuch Will Be Tough to Replicate

Even if he organizes the White House and limits his agenda, Republicans are simply not prepared to legislate.

The stars align.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

For a presidency with almost nothing to show for its first two months, the one clear success story so far for Donald Trump appears to be his selection of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court vacancy that Senate Republicans successfully pilfered from the Democrats. It certainly appears he'll be confirmed, and he might even be confirmed fairly easily. 

So why can't the president learn lessons from his Supreme Court selection and use them to succeed across the board? 

The easy answer is that anything more complicated than picking a nominee from a fairly obvious list of candidates who would make mainstream conservatives happy is beyond this administration's current capacity. Writing legislation? Executive orders that get things done and are also safe from the courts? Those are hard things to do. 

But suppose Trump managed to control himself and started to do his homework. Suppose he also appointed a real chief of staff who then imposed some order on the White House chaos. It may seem unlikely, but plenty of presidents have learned from on-the-job training, even if they didn't have nearly as much to learn as this president has.

So what lessons might Trump learn from what went right in the Gorsuch example?

Stay in the mainstream conservative safe spot. Gorsuch is, to be sure, very conservative. But it's easy to imagine a President Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker selecting Gorsuch, who satisfies both organized Republican-aligned groups and conservative ideologues. That's no surprise, since Trump basically farmed out the pick to conservative organizations. 

Make -- and attempt to fulfill -- realistic promises. Unlike most of his other promises, picking a Supreme Court choice was something fairly easy to accomplish. All his nominee needed was a simple majority of the Senate -- not majorities from both chambers of Congress, not a supermajority of the Senate. 1  So the real challenge here was just to pick someone Republicans would support, which wasn't that difficult in an era in which both parties maintain groups of perfectly groomed Supreme Court candidates (who I think are grown in antiseptic partisan labs somewhere). 

Get out of the way. Trump likes to make things mostly about himself, but he's mostly made this choice about Gorsuch, mainly by avoiding the spotlight.

You can't do it? Let someone else. It may be relatively easy to identify a list of Supreme Court nominees, but it's not clear Trump and his White House would have been capable of doing it. Outsourcing the task out to conservative organizations made it easier. 

But these lessons don't transfer well to almost anything else. All presidential candidates make overly ambitious promises. Trump's were more pie-in-the-sky than most.

They're either too vague to really mean anything, such as Trump's substance-free rhetoric about a fantastic health insurance plan which would cover everyone with better care and lower cost, or they require actions (whether by a Senate supermajority or foreign powers or private corporations) which he can't compel. Repealing Dodd-Frank financial regulations, for example, almost certainly would take 60 votes in the Senate, which means 8 Democrats even if he can keep all 52 Republicans. Getting a better deal from Mexico on trade is likely even harder. 

What that means is that avoiding failure might mean limiting his agenda, perhaps radically so. It also means accepting limited influence. That's especially true to the extent his White House and the executive branch under his nominees remain disorganized, limiting their ability to act. After all, that's one way of looking at his decision to farm out his Supreme Court picks -- it worked in this case, but it doesn't appear to be working at all well with health care, where he was willing to accept whatever Paul Ryan did. Of course, if Trump is willing to limit his agenda to what mainstream Republicans want, he would be giving up on a good part of the agenda he ran on: Trade, foreign policy, and infrastructure. What's more, weak presidencies in general tend to contribute, by their inaction and weakness, to poor public policy

But the worst part of the problem goes beyond Trump and his own, and his administration's, dysfunction.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist once said all Republicans needed in a president was someone who could handle signing off on the bills. That's essentially what Trump tried to do on the Supreme Court vacancy. Unfortunately, mainstream conservative Republicans just don't have a coherent, ready-to-go policy agenda beyond Supreme Court justices.

That's the case, as we're seeing, with health care. Even if Congress manages to pass something, it's not at all clear it will be viable policy. It's also the case with financial regulation, and even with taxes. The truth is that the Republican Party just isn't nearly as prepared to legislate, or to run the executive branch, as the Democratic Party was in 2009, regardless of the preparation of the two presidents involved. Or, to look at it another way, today's Republican Party is nowhere close to being as ready to govern as the 1981 Republican Party was when Ronald Reagan took office. 2

So Trump doesn't really have the option of just sitting back and waiting for Congress to produce solid, practical, workable conservative legislation for him to sign. Odds are it just won't happen.

All of which means Trump's apparent triumph with Gorsuch is very likely to remain an exception to a general pattern of a frustrated presidency. At best, right now, the best Trump can probably hope for is to maximize the exceptions and minimize the frustration. The balance, however, is probably going to stay in favor of frustration and dysfunction. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Technically Senate Democrats can filibuster, and it would require 60 votes to defeat that filibuster. However, everyone expects Republicans to eliminate the filibuster should Democrats use it -- and to do so by the same means Democrats used in 2013, which only requires a simple majority. 

  2. Republicans in 1981 had a new Senate majority and, for a while, a conservative working majority in the House despite the Democratic majority in that body, given the large number of conservative Democrats at the time. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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