Trump Knocks the Air Out of Republicans

The political vacuum is one of the more curious features of the administration.


Photographer: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The vacuum created by an uninformed president with a policy agenda that maxed out at 140 characters "was supposed to be a feature, not a bug," said Republican consultant Liam Donovan, via email. Donald Trump would get to tweet, and House Speaker Paul Ryan would get to determine the contours of the American future.

After 11 weeks, vacuums are breeding vacuums. The House of Representatives is riven by factions and paralyzed by Republicans' inability to deliver on the fantastical promises made by Trump in the presidential campaign, and by Ryan and his colleagues over the course of Barack Obama's presidency.

On international affairs, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain sustain a running commentary on the flailing Trump administration. They were delighted by Trump's strike on Syria. But the strike did nothing to clarify the administration's various strategic muddles, and confidence even among Republicans is likely to be short-lived. There appears to be no institutional Senate effort to inform or shape Trump's foreign policy, whatever it might prove to be.

Meanwhile, by both design and incompetence, huge staffing gaps persist throughout the Trump administration. Floating in the empty space, administration principals appear atomized, speaking in disparate tongues on even the gravest matters, such as the gas attack in Syria.

The vacuum is the dominant feature so far of the Trump era.

"Given disagreements among Republicans, they need political cover from the president and the White House to build chamber majorities, and Trump couldn't deliver," said congressional scholar Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, in an email interview. "That's given rise to what appear to be competing House, Senate and White House/Treasury efforts to craft a tax plan. This could well prove another instance in which Congress can't fill the vacuum without Trump's leadership."

People in Washington are accustomed to seizing all the power they can grab. Yet Trump's odd force field seems to render power inaccessible, even to those Republicans who expected to be running the world.

"In a normal White House, an inexperienced president would seek help from experts," emailed John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Reagan was light on foreign policy experience, but he surrounded himself with people who knew the field, starting with Vice President Bush. By delegating more power to Jared Kushner, Trump seems to be enlarging the vacuum."

Power doesn't so much concentrate in the White House as shrink there.

"The same problem extends to the broader administration where you can't fill out a government because many who are qualified aren't interested, most who are interested aren't qualified, and among the few who are both you're seeing people disqualified based on perceived loyalty issues," Donovan said.

The Trump team, continued Donovan, seems to believe "they can shrink government and/or limit internal sabotage by simply not filling many of these positions -- the problem with this approach is that you're just dividing the same amount of power fewer ways, ceding a ton of it to career bureaucrats by default, for better or worse."

Steve Bell, a former Republican staffer in the Senate who is a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, contends that lobbyists and the permanent federal bureaucracy -- the "swamp" in Trumpspeak -- are indeed the beneficiaries, using their government know-how "to push more effectively than ever," he said in an email.

Some vacuums won't fill. A 70-year-old man is unlikely to develop a moral sensibility, and his beleaguered and compromised staff appears unable to supply him with a facsimile.

Likewise, Trump's almost supernatural ignorance of American history leaves him unable to connect present to past, leaving a continent-size hole at the core of the White House narrative. Trump's awkward efforts to commune with the spirit of Andrew Jackson only underscored how parochial and disconnected he is. For Trump, the founding fathers will always be Roy Cohn and Fred Trump.

The political vacuum is one of the more curious features of the Trump administration. Republicans built powerful majorities in Congress and the states in recent years. Their aggressive violation of Washington political norms just yielded a conservative on the Supreme Court. Yet with their policies now adrift, and White House leadership absent, Republicans possess a dominant hand with strangely little within its grasp.

"Politically," said Donovan, "I'd argue it's less of a vacuum and more of an eclipse. Trump blocks out the political sun for any and all Republicans, much to the delight of the opposition."

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

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