Running to Stand Still

Amy Walter
June 15, 2017

So much is happening in Washington and yet nothing is happening at all. The investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 campaign continues to get lots of attention (and produce a lot of leaks), but it’s not likely to come to a conclusion anytime soon. Republicans fret privately about the president and publicly lament his lack of Twitter discipline, yet they show no signs of abandoning him. The imminent White House shake-up (Reince is out! Bannon is out!) has yet to materialize. And, the GOP-led government has yet to produce any significant legislative accomplishments.  Meanwhile, President Trump’s lack of message discipline continues to undercut his agenda and his own political standing.

First, let’s look at the Russia investigation. Every day produces something new, either in the form of a leak, testimony or a Trump tweet. Yet, there’s still not any indication the special counsel investigation spearheaded by Robert Mueller is going to wrap up anytime soon. There’s also been no “smoking gun” uncovered thus far. Instead, what we have right now is akin to a big puzzle.  Or, more like one of those puzzles that has been completed and turned upside down. Every new revelation allows us to flip one piece of that puzzle over. But, with hundreds of pieces still uncovered, it’s not clear what we are seeing. Instead, many are trying to fill in the blank spaces with their own preconceived notions of what they expect the picture to look like.  And, not surprisingly, partisanship is driving people to those preconceived notions. The latest AP-NORC poll found that almost 90 percent of Democrats think Trump “attempted to impede or obstruct the investigation” into Russia, while 62 percent of Republicans say they’re not concerned about Trump’s Russian ties.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Hill may be privately fretting about the investigation–and Trump’s handling of it–but in public they are sticking with the president. As Washington Post’s Paul Kane noted, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee “closed ranks” around Trump during the hearing of former FBI Director Jim Comey. There were no signs of defection among Senate Republican questioners in the hearing involving  Attorney General Jeff Sessions either. The battle lines on Capitol Hill look similar to those in the broader electorate. The latest Gallup poll had Republican approval of Trump at 83 percent while only 8 percent of Democrats approve of the job the president is doing. Of course, the topline support for Trump among the GOP masks deeper problems with enthusiasm. And, Trump’s dismal showing with independents (he has a 31 percent approval rating among these voters), should worry GOP incumbents up in 2018.

In other Capitol Hill news, despite Trump’s assertion that he’s passed more bills than any of his predecessors at this point, very little substantive work has been accomplished. There’s no border wall. No tax reform. No health care reform. No infrastructure bill. No budget. The House-passed health care bill is wildly unpopular.  The travel ban is still stuck in the courts. To be sure, there is still plenty of time for House/Senate GOPers to get on track. Obamacare, for example, looked dead plenty of times before it finally passed in 2010. Moreover, congressional Republicans, wary of heading into a midterm election with a thin record of accomplishments and an unpopular president, may be more motivated than ever to put aside internal divisions and actually get to work passing stuff to be signed by the president.  

Of course, Republicans aren’t getting much help from the White House when it comes to keeping on/getting on track. Trump calling the House-passed health care bill “mean”  in a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans is less than helpful to all those vulnerable GOPers who supported the legislation. Moreover, every time the White House decides to finally try and drive a message or theme–like say infrastructure week–the president undermines it with his tweets or off-the-cuff comments to reporters. Even good economic news is getting lost under the self-inflicted wounds and undisciplined messaging.

Given that President Trump was once a reality show star, I guess it isn’t all that strange that Washington feels more and more like a reality show every day. There’s lots of drama (“are they going to break up/get together?”), breathless speculation (“who will get kicked off the island?”) and creative editing meant to signal movement. But, in the end, the drama itself is what the show is about. The substance isn’t important. That may work on a TV show, but it’s not a sustainable model in governing. Voters judge candidates on what they have and haven’t accomplished. Moreover, the all-drama-all-the-time presidency may end up backfiring on Trump. It has motivated Democrats and is showing signs of wearing out GOPers.