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July 22, 2016

The GOP Is Standing at the Crossroads

Congressional Republicans accomplished more than voters realize, but what now?

Just one year ago, few people even dreamed that Donald Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination. Or that he’d do so by getting the highest number of votes in a field that began with 17 contestants — a group that included four sitting senators (Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio) and a remarkable nine current or former governors (Chris Christie, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Rick Perry). And yet, Trump outlasted the rest because he successfully adopted the role of the outsider running against a Republican Congress and a Washington establishment that, in the view of many voters, did little to counter the Obama agenda.

But not so fast. The Wall Street Journal laid out a lengthy case for Congress this week that argued the GOP wasn’t as ineffective as some voters might think. “Start with everything the GOP Congress has prevented,” the Journal argues. “Universal pre-K, gun regulation, a $15 national minimum wage, an ObamaCare bailout for insurers, equal pay regulation, more disclosure of campaign donations, ‘free’ community college, a new ‘infrastructure bank,’ closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, among many others. President Obama proposed each of those, often more than once, but they vanished faster than Martin O'Malley’s presidential campaign thanks to the GOP Congress.”

But there was so much more that wasn’t stopped, and the perception grew with every Obama “achievement” that it was time for someone from outside Washington to clean up the mess.

“People are fed up with Washington and they want fundamental, wholesale change,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He’s right.

The burning question for GOP brass is whether that change will include the loss of a Republican Senate. The GOP has to defend far more Senate seats in this cycle — 24 to 10 — than the Democrats do. Even if the GOP wins half of those Senate races, it won’t be good enough to keep their current 54-46 majority. (The House is somewhat more safe for the Republicans, as Democrats would need to gain 30 seats to take control.)

It was one reason that Senator Ted Cruz, despite withholding his endorsement of Donald Trump Wednesday night at the convention, urged Republicans to “vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom, and to be faithful to the Constitution.” Keeping Congress is still important to the Republicans, if not necessarily to Trump.

A Republican Congress would be the only hope for checks and balances should Hillary Clinton be elected — and, four years hence, the Wall Street Journal might feature a similar column to the one it ran Tuesday. On the other hand, a Republican Congress would be more of a wild card with a Trump presidency, because it would quickly approve some items on the Trump agenda but balk at others. With Trump, it’s likely a GOP Congress would frequently be in a position similar to the one it assumed during the “compassionate conservative” era of George W. Bush, when congressional conservatives were often placed in situations where their principles demanded a vote against the president but leadership wished to move his agenda. (No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D were two examples.) A Republican Congress desperate to avoid Trump’s wrath may move well to the left in order to participate in the bipartisan deal-making Trump would be sure to engage in with congressional Democrats.

The WSJ editors conclude, “The best argument for Donald Trump, apart from the Supreme Court, is that [House Speaker] Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would steer him in the right policy direction.” But having run as a Washington outsider — and given Trump’s preference for going against the grain as he did throughout the campaign — it’s doubtful congressional leaders will have that sort of influence.

These are interesting times.

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