The astounding impotency of Republicans, who cannot even garner the votes necessary for a clean repeal of the Affordable Care Act, goes far beyond poor leadership. Opposition to ObamaCare, once pejoratively branded “socialized medicine”, is conceivably the core of the party’s identity. Not only have Republicans made repealing former president Obama’s signature legislation an issue in almost every campaign for the past eight years, it is very prominently featured in the party platform, updated most recently at the 2016 nominating convention with a preamble which declared, “[President Obama] and the Democratic party have dismantled Americans’ system of healthcare. They have replaced it with a costly and complicated scheme that limits choices and takes away our freedom.”
It is not just that Republicans cannot govern; there is an element of guerrilla warfare to the legislative process over which every party stumbles. Gridlock, though tedious, is a net positive. It is another check upon a government dedicated to impeding the momentum of an impassioned majority from steamrolling the rights of the minority.
The truly catastrophic embarrassment of the healthcare imbroglio is the lack of unity around opposition to a policy when, as recently as July 21, 2016, ending freedom-crushing government-controlled healthcare was seemingly an existential belief for the party.
Unsurprisingly, many on the right are looking to distract from their failures and exorcise their demons by assigning blame, as if internecine bickering about who betrayed whose campaign promise will somehow unite the splintering party.
Congress would like to blame President Trump, who many pundits argue is disconnected from the policy, which he sees only as another box to tick on the Make America Great Again checklist. He could have used his inimitable style to stir up the base at rallies and on social media and create a grassroots groundswell of support for the bill. President Trump has, not unsurprisingly, taken to bullying members of Congress for their supposed disloyalty to him.
The truth is, they’re all guilty. It’s truly astounding to watch the president walk the line between being head of the party, and thus deserving of the loyalty of a supplicant Congress, and also being a helpless victim.
Trump’s self-serving fecklessness is grotesque, but it is also superficial, and therefore dull.
Congress, on the other hand, has managed to turn the caricature of the usurious politician into the thespian role-of-a-lifetime. The past eight-years have proven to be one protracted play of dramatic betrayal. The chorus of “patience” assaulted the ears of a right-wing audience over and over again. Dutifully, they sat through minor scenes of broken promises, waiting the long-awaited emotional climax of a victorious majority government instituting its agenda. But instead, they were treated to an un-foreshadowed twist ending where the hands of Ted Cruz, seemingly the plucky underdog protagonist, savagely gutted the one tenuously conservative amendment to the compromise healthcare bill, leaving a shocked audience to gasp “Et tu, Senator?”
But the polity is partly to blame, for they sat through the whole disastrous play instead of rising up en masse and walking out in protest of its sheer awfulness. Voters who bought into the trap of binary morality and listened to fast-talking politicians who drawled, “It’s us or them, and have you seen the other guy?” are as guilty of defaulting on a politics of veracity and principles as are members of government.
This political abattoir, however, is made no better by those calling on the president to cajole Congress into gaining the requisite votes to pass anything that bears even a passing resemblance to healthcare reform.
Much like the president, they assume that the executive, as the functional head of the party, is owed the loyalty of its other members. This attitude, though, is dangerous when it is exercised to influence the Congressional agenda. Trump may be the default leader of the Republicans by virtue of his prominent position, but this leadership is purely symbolic. He is the president, that is to say, the head of the executive branch. Members of Congress are part of the legislative branch, an independent and co-equal part of government. The president is not a prime minister; he has no authority over Congress.
When President Obama insinuatingly threatened the Supreme Court as they were debating the constitutionality of his signature healthcare bill, he caused something of a scandal, and rightfully so for it degraded the separation of powers. Trump’s threats towards Congress are equally damaging.
Critics might argue that the Supreme Court is a more autonomous branch in regard to the legislative process, whereas Congress and the president must work in tandem to pass bills. But ever since John Marshall ruled in Marbury v. Madison and established the process of judicial review, the Court has been an integral part of the legislative process. If the president cannot exert pressure over the domain of the justices, he should not be exerting pressure over members of Congress, even if they are more overtly partisan.
The working assumption that the president has some inherent right to have his agenda passed is pure fiction. Congress, if it is otherwise inclined, does not even need to consider the president’s pet projects. Yes, there needs to be a working relationship between the legislature and the executive, but one that is built on the recognition that Congress is an independent branch of government equal in stature to the presidency; it is not a lackey.
Rather than making veiled threats against members of the legislature when they violate some imagined loyalty oath, the president would be better served using his position to more constructive and legitimate ends. For though it is inappropriate for Trump to pressure members of Congress, he is the president of all the people, and it is wholly appropriate for him to use his rapport with his supporters to lobby their members of Congress to pass legislation that is to their benefit.
Also published on Medium.