Donald Trump was supposed to take over the Republican Party, but the question going forward will be whether the Republican Party takes over him.
So far the early legislative agenda of Republicans after the Trump revolution is shaping up to be what you would have expected prior to the Trump revolution. It’s a cookie-cutter GOP program that any Republican who ran for president in the past 40 years would feel comfortable signing, with its prospective centerpiece being another round of across-the-board tax cuts.
It’s not that Trump didn’t campaign on all of this over the past year. His candidacy combined utterly conventional Republican positions with a few signature policy heterodoxies and a flame-throwing populist message. If it’s comforting that he doesn’t seem intent on waging war on his own party in Washington, the opposite risk is that he loses some of his political distinctiveness in the grinding legislative wars to come.
This is why the Democratic approach to Trump so far, besides being insane, is wrongheaded. The Democrats are preparing to fight what they consider a kleptocratic handmaiden of Vladimir Putin, an unprecedented threat to the American republic that justifies cockamamie schemes like calling for the Electoral College to ignore the results of the election.
There is no doubt that Trump is unlike any prior president. But Democrats will in all likelihood find their opposition to Trump running in a familiar rut — Republicans are heartless tools of corporations and the wealthy. They don’t care if people lose their health insurance. They are cutting taxes for the rich. They are deregulating bankers. Etc., etc.
This is the critique that Hillary Clinton didn’t make of Trump, opting instead to emphasize his outlandishness. In this vein, liberals are now resisting “normalizing” Trump, when they should be perfectly content to normalize him — specifically, to make him a normal Republican.
It’s possible to see the case already building. The candidate who issued thunderous jeremiads during the campaign against a globalized elite that had literally stolen from small-town America has assembled a Cabinet that by and large could have been put together by Ted Cruz, or for that matter, Mitt Romney.
Then there’s the congressional agenda. The early indications are that Republicans will pass a partial repeal of Obamacare out of the gate that could further destabilize the law’s rickety exchanges and lead to people losing their insurance.
Next, congressional Republicans want to move on to large-scale tax reform. The starting point will likely be House Speaker Paul Ryan’s already well-developed plan for across-the-board income-tax cuts and a lower corporate tax rate. For all its merit, Ryan’s reform could have been incubated by any conservative think tank before anyone imagined Trump might run for president, let alone win.
What’s the point in having a populist Republican in the White House if congressional Republicans can’t find a way to couple some replacement measures with their Obamacare repeal to give people other options for getting health insurance? Or if congressional Republicans can’t make their tax plan more oriented toward the middle class, perhaps including a cut in payroll taxes?
All of this is subject to change, and Trump can potentially blow up the best-laid plans of congressional Republicans with one tweet. Of course, Trump will be heard from on infrastructure, trade and immigration, where he is in a different place than much of his party.
Neither wing of the GOP may like it, but the Reaganites and the populists are now in an uneasy alliance. It behooves the champions of a highly traditional Republican platform to think about what Trump’s victory means and to be more mindful than in the past of the interests of working-class voters. And it behooves Trump the firebrand to consider the responsibilities of governing.
There is a balance to be struck. The Republican establishment may welcome a more “normal” Trump, but so, in the end, will Democrats.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.