The reminder “be careful what you wish for” certainly applies to winning control of all the branches of power in a presidential system — it looks thrilling and promising on the surface but it is a trap for the unwary or unready.
Right now, the United States is essentially governed by a single party — Democrats retain a legislative filibuster (today, anyway) but otherwise the Republicans hold the reins. This is a moment they have been waiting for and now that they have it, history is watching.
So far, history is not impressed. The hazards of single party governance are more apparent by the day.
First of all, voters are going to hold you accountable and you have lost the incredibly valuable ability to credibly blame the other party if things go wrong. You can try, of course, and your base will believe you, but most voters probably won’t. It’s on you to actually govern.
Second, you only can govern if you have good relationships among the branches and a clear, shared agenda. But in the Republican case, those things are absent.
The first thing that is missing is consensus within the Republicans in Congress themselves on what they should do and how they should do it. This is not a new problem. The Freedom Caucus see themselves as a distinct entity with their own agenda; they drove House Speaker John Boehner out of the job and are now making Speaker Paul Ryan’s job difficult if not impossible. Their refusal to work with the rest of their party killed the first attempt to repeal Obamacare and makes the second look iffy, and doesn’t bode well for tax reform or the Continuing Resolution on the Budget.
There are not particularly good relationships between the White House and Congress either. President Trump visited the home state of Speaker Ryan just yesterday for a major speech, and twice referred to him as “Ron.” That of course doesn’t necessarily reflect on the closeness of the relationship, but in this case it does. The sour ending of the first health care reform attempt illuminated the multiple fissures between the branches.
The president blamed Ryan for not introducing a bill he could pass, but his approval ratings are at record lows for a chief executive so early in his first term and while that doesn’t mean they can’t improve, it does reduce his clout.
The president is non-ideological while sufficient numbers of members of Congress are so ideological that they will block the president of their own party on principal. That means that the president can’t get a bill passed without Democratic cooperation but Democrats are disinclined to cooperate for a number of reasons (his treatment of President Obama, his loss of the popular vote, the fact that he is not popular in their districts and that opposing the president’s agenda is a strategy they learned from Republicans.)
Of course, the branches and factions may yet get their act together and pass their long anticipated agenda, but the window for that to happen, before midterm election concerns start to make legislators cautious and distracted, is starting to close.
Two really good articles by political scientists look at this from slightly different perspectives — they are excellent guides to understanding why the Republicans have not managed to hit the ball out of the park yet. With the over-hyped but much anticipated “First Hundred Days” of Trump’s presidency ending with much media fanfare they also help to explain why he has so few concrete successes to point to.