Pence promises focused GOP agenda, but anything goes with just-wing-it Trump
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.”
Vice President Pence talks Jan. 23 with business leaders who were invited to the White House to meet with President Trump.