Let’s face it. No one really knows what’s going to happen this year. The president and his aides pride themselves on misdirection and unpredictability, even as they are firmly committed to a populist and nationalist agenda. Many Republicans in DC are uncomfortable with parts of this agenda - as well as his style - but they are happy to have a White House willing to push ahead on their top priorities like increased spending on defense, tax cuts and an Obamacare repeal.
But, before everyone starts putting odds on what gets passed and what doesn’t in 2017, it’s important to look at the fundamental challenges Republicans face in pursuing any sort of legislative agenda.
1. A united GOP base that shows no sign of abandoning Trump.
The President does not “come” from the Republican Party, but the Republican Party has come to him. Not only does he continue to enjoy solid approval ratings from the Republican base, but these voters also see him as the one who should be setting the policy for the party and the country.
The most recent Pew Research poll asked Republicans who they would trust more in a disagreement between GOPers in Congress and President Trump, 52 percent picked Trump, while just one-third (34 percent) chose GOP leaders in Congress. The February NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 64 percent of Trump voters wanted to see him set policy for the country. Even among those who didn’t vote in 2016, almost half (46 percent) said they wanted Trump to set policy. A quarter of non-voters picked Democrats in Congress to set the policy and just 15 percent wanted to see GOPers in Congress do it.
This means Trump can be an effective enforcer in getting wavering members in-line. That’ll be a welcome help to Speaker Paul Ryan who was consistently stymied by rebel forces during the Obama-era. Of course, it also means that Trump has leverage over Ryan too.
2. The (in)experience factor part I
While “official” Washington has been rocked by Trump’s untraditional style, most members are already quite familiar with it. After all, they rode this roller coaster in 2016. One day things looked good. The next day, there’s an Access Hollywood tape, or a fight with a Gold Star family or a twitter war of words with a former Miss Universe. They’ve learned to lay low and wait out the storm. This reduces the probability of total melt-down or freak-out when things hit a rough patch.
3. The (in)experience factor part II
There are very few high-level staffers in the White House with any serious level of governing experience. The important exception is Vice President Mike Pence and the team assigned to liaison with the Hill. They get how things work (and don’t) at the Capitol and will be a steadying influence.
Yet, most of the Republicans in the House and Senate are new to this whole legislative thing too. Two-thirds of Republicans in the House and just over half of the Republicans in the Senate have never worked with a Republican president. All they know how to do is be in the minority. It’s easy to vote against stuff. It’s much harder to agree on what to vote for and then agree on how to sell it to the public.
4. Fierce urgency of now
One party control of government doesn't come along every day and can disappear in a flash. Even if you haven’t been in Washington for long, you realize that the opportunity is fleeting to get stuff done. This should be a help in getting recalcitrant members to become team players. But, the GOP conference has proven to be a pretty unruly bunch. When she was Speaker in 2009, Nancy Pelosi deftly and effectively kept wary and worried Democrats together during the Obamacare fights. Can Ryan do the same?
McConnell is one of the best political chess players in Washington, but he has just 52 members of his own party and a whole bunch of potential defectors (Sens. Sasse, Paul, McCain, Murkowski, Graham and Collins). This leaves him with a very small margin for error. Of course, there are five Democratic senators up in 2018 who sit in deep red states and will be feeling pressured to play along with the GOP on some issues. However, we also know that the Democratic base is not at all interested in letting them do so. According to the most recent Pew Research poll, “nearly three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say their bigger concern is that congressional Democrats will not do enough to oppose Trump and his policies.”
5. The known unknowns
First, the Russia issue isn't going away, no matter how many times the White House calls it a “ruse” or “fake news.” In fact, one can argue that the more the White House complains, the more deeply dug in news organizations get to this story. At the end of the day, it could turn up nothing. But, there’s also a very real possibility that it turns up something. And, there’s nothing like a scandal to destroy all the best-laid plans for legislating.
Then, there’s the fact that this president, like his predecessors, will face a serious event. It could be man-made (terrorism) or nature (hurricane, earthquake). But, we know it’s coming. Whether he responds well or poorly, we know that these things also tend to change the mood and the momentum in DC. Tax policy suddenly looks less critical when we are dealing with a terrorist attack.
Botton line: We know that taxes and Obamacare are the top 2017 priorities. These are also huge heavy lifts with lots of policy and political challenges. But, it’s also important to understand the fundamentals before we get into the details.