Pence prom­ises fo­cused GOP agenda, but any­thing goes with just-wing-it Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence did not flinch when a rank-and-file Repub­li­can asked how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would build sup­port for its ag­gres­sive agenda on Capi­tol Hill.

Pres­i­dent Trump, Pence said, was “ab­so­lutely de­ter­mined” to sell his con­ser­va­tive agenda at ral­lies all across the coun­try with “the ex­act same fo­cus” that Ron­ald Rea­gan did in his early days as pres­i­dent.

“We’re go­ing to be tak­ing the mes­sage straight to the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” Pence said.

The crowd of sev­eral hun­dred Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, as­sem­bled in Philadel­phia in late Jan­uary for a pol­icy re­treat, gave a rous­ing ova­tion as the vice pres­i­dent fin­ished his re­marks, ac­cord­ing to a leaked au­dio tape of the pri­vate ses­sion.

A lit­tle more than a week later, Repub­li­cans might want to re­con­sider that plan. Ever since his dis­ci­plined in­au­gu­ral ad­dress on Jan. 20, Trump’s pub­lic ap­pear­ances have ap­peared to be ad-lib ad­ven­tures — at times hu­mor­ous, con­fus­ing and con­tro­ver­sial.

Wed­nes­day’s event hon­or­ing Black His­tory Month turned into a dis­cus­sion of how Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, more than 120 years af­ter his death, was get­ting “more and more” at­ten­tion. Later that day, a per­func­tory call to the prime min­is­ter of Aus­tralia, a key Pa­cific ally, turned into an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent when leaks re­vealed that Trump called a refugee agree­ment be­tween the two na­tions “dumb” and ended the dis­cus­sion af­ter 25 min­utes rather than the planned hour.

Then came the pres­i­dent’s jokes about Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s TV rat­ings for Trump’s old re­al­ity show, “The Ap­pren­tice,” dur­ing the usu­ally solemn Na­tional Prayer Break­fast.

This style is very much in line with Trump the can­di­date, and it’s hard to ar­gue with its po­lit­i­cal ef­fec­tive­ness, given that he won more than 300 elec­toral col­lege votes in Novem­ber. Some of Trump’s most com­pelling mo­ments as a can­di­date were at his trade­mark ral­lies, where he ex­cited his base and gen­er­ated cable TV head­lines. Com­pared with much weight­ier is­sues — such as is­su­ing an en­try ban for peo­ple from seven ma­jor­i­tyMus­lim na­tions and an­nounc­ing a Supreme Court pick — it’s pos­si­ble that these mo­ments end up be­ing judged as mere me­dia dis­trac­tions when the Trump his­tory books are writ­ten.

But ral­ly­ing his po­lit­i­cal base and forg­ing con­sen­sus on leg­is­la­tion are two very dif­fer­ent things. Trump’s just-wing-it ap­proach presents a real dilemma for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) as they fig­ure out how to de­ploy their party’s leader in sell­ing com­plex over­hauls of the health-care in­dus­try and the tax code that Congress is ex­pected to tackle this year.

Trump be­gins his pres­i­dency less pop­u­lar than past pres­i­dents in their first year in of­fice.

Barack Obama spent the first half of 2009 with more than 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ap­prov­ing of his job per­for­mance, ac­cord­ing to Gallup, and he hov­ered around 50 per­cent well into the spring of 2010. Through­out those first 15 months in of­fice, Obama used his po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in speeches and ral­lies around the coun­try sup­port­ing the emerg­ing Af­ford­able Care Act.

Obama ap­peared at a town hall in Green Bay, Wis., in June 2009 and at­tended events in Cleve­land in Au­gust 2009. He gave a na­tion­ally tele­vised ad­dress to a joint meet­ing of Congress in Septem­ber of that year. Af­ter the fact, Democrats fought over Obama’s ef­fec­tive­ness and whether he should’ve done more, par­tic­u­larly af­ter they lost 63 House seats and the ma­jor­ity in the 2010 midterm elec­tions. But Obama’s work did shore up enough sup­port to pass the ACA.

In 1981, Rea­gan was also pop­u­lar, with about 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ap­prov­ing of him, and a March 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt cre­ated a groundswell of sup­port. By early Au­gust 1981, Congress ap­proved the new pres­i­dent’s sweep­ing tax cut plan.

Pence, 57, re­told the story of Rea­gan’s early days to Repub­li­cans in Philadel­phia. “There’s some of us in the room with hair the same color as mine that re­mem­ber the days of the 40th pres­i­dent, who went to the Congress with pro­pos­als and then went to the Amer­i­can peo­ple to sell the pro­pos­als. And I want to tell you the 45th pres­i­dent has the ex­act same fo­cus,” Pence said.

This year Ryan and McCon­nell will have to ded­i­cate an enor­mous amount of time be­hind the scenes to help­ing craft leg­is­la­tion, coax­ing wa­ver­ing law­mak­ers and delv­ing into the par­lia­men­tary path to win­ning ap­proval.

That’s where a pres­i­dent is sup­posed to come in, launch­ing whis­tle-stop tours to sell his agenda to the pub­lic, par­tic­u­larly in the dis­tricts and states where wa­ver­ing law­mak­ers need backup to vote yes.

It re­mains to be seen whether Trump can pull off such a feat.

His pub­lic ap­proval is al­ready down around 40 per­cent, give or take a few points, which is where Rea­gan and Obama even­tu­ally landed in their sec­ond year in of­fice, af­ter they had rung up big vic­to­ries in Congress.

And Trump’s style is unique. Events and speeches de­signed to push one idea of­ten wan­der into other top­ics, draw­ing at­ten­tion away from the cen­tral theme. Such a me­an­der­ing style in ser­vice of a tax code over­haul may not ex­actly have the in­tended ef­fect.

Trump gives the im­pres­sion of be­ing a leader who delegates to sub­or­di­nates, so he’s not likely to be­come a de­tails per­son tout­ing in­tri­cate por­tions of emerg­ing leg­is­la­tion in his for­ays out­side the Belt­way.

The over­all ques­tion might just be how pop­u­lar — or un­pop­u­lar — Trump is later this year as the real de­ci­sions are made in­side the Capi­tol.

Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the “num­ber one thing” dic­tat­ing the leg­isla­tive agenda over the next two years — and the out­come of the 2018 midterm elec­tions — is Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity.

“So part of my job is to make sure that we don’t let Trump get away with stuff,” he said in an in­ter­view last week.

That’s why Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), a sec­ond-term law­maker who won re­elec­tion with nearly 75 per­cent of the vote, told Pence he was con­cerned for his fel­low Repub­li­cans in swing seats. He said Trump’s agenda “cre­ates some ex­po­sure for some mem­bers and some risk,” ex­plain­ing that sol­diers go into bat­tle for “love of coun­try” and be­cause they trust the per­son at their side.

He asked a sim­ple ques­tion: “Will the ad­min­is­tra­tion have our back?”

“I prom­ise you,” Pence replied, “the pres­i­dent’s go­ing to be on the road in your states and in your dis­tricts. I’m go­ing to be on the road in your states and in your dis­tricts.”

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence talks Jan. 23 with busi­ness lead­ers who were in­vited to the White House to meet with Pres­i­dent Trump.

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