My latest piece in POLITICO Magazine uses a bumpy week of revelations to surmise when (if ever) Congressional Republicans might tire of this White House, and what would compel them to cut bait. For now voter sentiment is enough to keep them in line, but ultimately Trump’s hold on elected GOPers is only as strong as the promise of the Republican legislative agenda:
The collective action problem facing elected Republicans today is an echo of the dynamic that played out on the campaign trail. Whatever their true feelings, your average member is boxed in unless and until Trump’s numbers begin to crater with their voters; right now, his approval rating among Republicans is in the 80s. While most GOP congressional candidates kept Trump at arms’ length last year, a move validated by their performance, those who openly crossed him did so strategically and in relatively muted tones. The one time you did see a real jailbreak, with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, it yielded around 50 defections; but those decisions—and the ensuing anticlimax—leave scar tissue to this day. During a crucial week for the health care bill, leaked audio surfaced of Speaker Paul Ryan backing away from Trump mere weeks before the election, an episode that remains a sore spot for the president.
And yet the stakes on the trail were different. Back then you only had to grit your teeth through the last few months of the election, hold on tight and hope for the best. Flash forward and Republicans actually hold all the levers of power. If it was hard to cross the party’s underdog nominee, the thought of breaking with the president of the United States with three and a half years left on the clock is exponentially more daunting. Moreover, the current trifecta may be a once-a-generation legislative opportunity, suggesting a heightened tolerance for Trump’s foibles. When you find yourself in the red zone on a decade’s worth of political goals, it takes a lot of lost yardage to force you to punt.
There still may be more fallout from the Russia meeting, to be sure. For now it feels like a political bomb that didn’t quite go off, even if the audible ticks sent the smarter pols scrambling. But it’s nonetheless an instructive moment when it comes to discerning the pain threshold for the elected GOP. The criticisms may grow louder with each unforced error by the White House, but as long as the legislative dream is still alive it’s hard to imagine any sort of full-scale break. If that dream dies, however, it’s every man for himself.
Read the full piece here.