It’s happened twice in the past two weeks: President Trump has laid out bold positions on immigration (closing the border with Mexico) and health (repealing Obamacare), but then retreated on both.
This is a man who never concedes weakness or admits a mistake. So, what's really going on? Trump believes deeply in what he has put forward. Immigration has been his #1 issue throughout his campaign and presidency, from the Muslim immigration ban, to the wall with Mexico, to the government shutdown, to the declaration of a national emergency on the southern border, to the threat to close the border altogether. And now he has forced his Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to resign because she is not tough enough.
Repealing Obamacare has been issue #2, from the multiple votes in Congress to the posthumous attacks on Senator John McCain and his thumbs-down in the Senate on repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Trump has failed on both because he has not been able to build a consensus in Congress to act on either. Why? Trump does not come from the political world – he comes from the business world. There are different rules of the game. In the C-suites, the CEO issues orders, and they get executed.
In the political world, the president needs to build coalitions to get the votes in Congress. What is now abundantly clear is that Trump simply does not know how to do real legislative work, and he pays a huge political price.
Trump declaims regularly on the issues, but there are no deals on immigration or health or infrastructure. To solve those issues, what is needed are real bipartisan summits – not show meetings before television cameras at the cabinet table or in the Oval – that are structured to reach agreement. In her resignation letter, Homeland Secretary Kirsten Nielsen could not have been clearer in stating what the real impediment to immigration policy is:
“I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse.”
Trump is incapable of proceeding like this. He simply says: Congress should get this done! But there is no follow-through, except for firing his cabinet officers when he gets frustrated that nothing is changing.
Where Trump has in fact succeeded – his landmark tax cuts, and consistent Senate approval for conservative judges throughout the court system, and conservative justices on the Supreme Court – is where Republicans were united and Trump had the votes in the Senate and House in his first two years to get those done. There was no cross-party dealing on tax or the Supreme Court, just the steamroller of Republican votes on the floor of the Senate and House.
Throughout, Trump has not had just the 'Bully Pulpit' of speeches and campaigning –made famous by Theodore Roosevelt – to rev up his base. He has also had the Trump Bully Tweet Pulpit, which he uses to hurl thunderbolts and change the agenda in an instant. He may not be able to execute on his pronouncements, but he defines the contours of debate, and everyone has to react when he does.
On the foreign policy front – particularly trade – Trump has had more success, because in foreign policy and as commander-in-chief he can act like a CEO, and issue orders that get carried out. Impose tariffs on China. Withdraw from Syria. Threaten and then open up negotiations with North Korea. Recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and accept Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Impose sanctions and squeeze Maduro in Venezuela.
What is missing for Trump is that he is spurning what could be breakthrough legislative successes, especially on immigration. When Trump retreats, it is not to concede a point and drive a compromise deal. Trump would rather own the issue and feed his base rather than forge compromise and consensus and expand his political reach.
Trump builds no political capital from compromising – and winning – on Capitol Hill, and this makes even him more vulnerable to the political attacks that will not stop. He demands action on his issues all the time. He will continue to do so. But he can’t get his issues done.