Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GOP Game Theory -- things are still different

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

    LBJ on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,

Let's start with a prediction:
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday that Republicans will split with President Trump within months unless the administration changes course.0
"My prediction is he keeps up on this path...within three, four months you're going to see a whole lot of Republicans breaking with him," Schumer said during an interview with ABC's "The View."
Schumer argued while most GOP lawmakers aren't yet willing to break publicly from the White House, they are privately having "real problems" with Trump's policies in his first month.

"A lot of the Republicans, they're mainstream people. ... They will feel they have no choice but to break with him," he said.
GOP leadership are largely dismissing any early signs of discord between Congress and the White House as they slowly try to make progress on an ambitious agenda.


Ed Kilgore, however, points out that Trump may not be as toxic as many people think:

So while it is hard to deny that Trump is amazingly unpopular for a new president, unless his approval ratings trend farther down the way even those of popular presidents typically do, his party may not suffer the kind of humiliation Democrats experienced in 2010. For all the shock Trump has consistently inspired with his behavior as president, there’s not much objective reason for Republican politicians to panic and begin abandoning him based on his current public standing. But in this as in so many other respects, we are talking about an unprecedented chief executive, so the collapse some in the media and the Democratic Party perceive as already underway could yet arrive.




The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

The closest analogy that comes to mind is the Democrats and Vietnam, but that was a rift in a big-tent loosely organized party. The 21st Century GOP is a small tent party that depends on discipline and entrenchment strategies. It's not clear that it would survive a civil war.

Given that, I suspect the next year or two will prove Schumer wrong. There is some evidence that the president's polling has stabilized, perhaps even rebounded a bit, but even if the numbers go back into free fall, Republicans in the House and the Senate will be extremely reluctant to break from Trump with anything more than isolated or cosmetic challenges.

This isn't just a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent pissing in; this is a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent tossing grenades. 

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