Attacking as a Policy
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
In between rounds of golf in New Jersey during his two and half week vacation, the President found time to ratchet up a major international crisis as well as to endeavor to single-handedly destroy one of the key leaders of his own Republican Party. The confrontation with Kim Jong-un might well have been expected but Trump’s attack on Senate Majority Leader McConnell was bizarre.
Of late President Trump repeatedly has extolled his academic career at the Wharton School of Business. Given his remarks about McConnell, it is becoming clearer by the day, however, that he took no courses in American politics let alone international relations. In his over six months in office as well as throughout his presidential campaign, Trump has displayed a fundamental ignorance about how the American governmental system works. From budgeting to legislating and everything in between, the President just does not understand or want to accept the rules and norms of how the institutions in Washington work; neither the Congress nor the Courts nor the Presidency. This became all the more evident now that the President has zoned in to attack Senate Majority Leader McConnell.
Traditionally a working relationship is established between Congress and the White House whether the leaders in the two institutions are or are not of the same party. They do not always agree, they struggle to govern together, and—like Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tim O’Neill after it is all over they go out and play golf together; set to fight another day.
President Trump does not accept the fact that legislation is accomplished by consensus building and resolving differences. McConnell is personally no more to blame for the failure of Congress to “repeal and replace” Obamacare than is Speaker Ryan or the President himself. Blaming McConnell, especially given the way Republicans are now rallying to his side, only guarantees that the President will isolate himself even further when the next major legislative or political fight comes down the road.
The White House faces a formidable challenge when Congress returns after Labor Day. Congress must enact a fiscal year budget for FY 2018 and permit the Treasury to continue to borrow money by raising the national debt ceiling. This is without even considering the President’s remaining signature initiatives of tax reform and infrastructure plan or even considering revisiting the health care debate. Trump needs help and support in formulating reasonable legislation and getting it passed. Attacking McConnell is hardly the way to achieve party unity let alone with the Congress as a whole.
Congress—when it works—operates collegially. Even within a given party, successful leaders do not bully colleagues. If there is no good will and cooperation–only low blows and ad hominem attacks—nothing gets done. Trump can rail out against Members but they are responsible to their constituents and not to a petulant, angry man. McConnell is not up for re-election until 2020 and many of his GOP colleagues will be around at least until 2022. Trump can raise his ire against Members in the House or the Senate but he is not necessarily a political threat.
When most people—even Presidents—are frustrated they do not reach out and try to destroy their opponents. There is no reason to assume that the President’s modus operandi in dealing with McConnell will be any more effective than how Trump appears to be dealing with Kim Jong-un.