The assertion that President Trump never backs down or is a “tough negotiator” is belied by his nearly 18 months in office. He caved to Kim Jong Un — throwing in the cessation of military exercises with South Korea as a sort of parting gift. He has backed down on a slew of things: agreeing to a continuing resolution that didn’t fund the wall he wants; signing a budget he said he wouldn’t sign; not following through with his previous calls for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan; not making good on a threat to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III; putting a promised reprieve for ZTE in doubt; and not fulfilling promises to pursue gun legislation (after the National Rifle Association had a talk with him). He has sworn that he’ll stick by embattled advisers and Cabinet members, only to relent and can them (with the exception of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt). He finds it impossible to resist giving away the store (including code-word intelligence) to Russia.
One sure sign that he’s not all that tough: Tough, tenacious guys who do not back down don’t have to lie about responsibility for their own actions.
The real problem in forcing Trump to back away from dangerous and counterproductive actions is getting his own party to oppose him. The child separation policy was a rare exception. On everything from Trump family conflicts of interest to racist language to a horribly misguided trade war, Republicans have curled up in the fetal position and prayed that Trump’s ire would not be directed at them. Even worse, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) won’t bring up legislation that could pass their respective houses unless they know Trump likes it (hence no fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program). Likewise, the GOP-controlled Senate will not reject the unqualified, extreme and unethical nominees he puts forth.
Trump, in other words, would very likely back down more consistently if he were challenged more consistently.
The good news is that the country need not rely on sporadic national backlashes to curb Trump’s worst rhetoric and decisions. The midterms are less than five months away. With a Democratic majority in one or both houses, Democrats could provide oversight, transparency and accountability on everything from emoluments to the administration’s efforts to make Obamacare coverage more expensive.
Despite Trump’s North Korea summit and constant effort to gin up his base by stoking racial animus, Republicans still look poised to lose their shirts in November. The most recent CNN poll finds Democrats leading in the generic ballot, 50 percent to 42 percent, and a similar 50 percent to 43 percent advantage in enthusiasm. Similar results in the generic ballot can be seen in the Economist-YouGov (44/37), Quinnipiac (49/43) and Monmouth (48/41) polls.
Now, Democrats have been accused of having no message, or just not a clear message. It seems pretty clear to me — put an end to pandemic corruption in this administration and stop him from doing extreme and horrible things that violate our democratic and moral standards while also hurting even his own voters (e.g. tariffs, increasing Obamacare premiums).
In short, a “Stop the madness” or at least a “Limit the madness” message has more attraction as Trump’s behavior becomes more unhinged and Republicans’ obsequiousness becomes more galling. When Democrats can induce their GOP colleagues to stand up to Trump, even a little, Congress periodically has been able to force Trump to retreat from actions that offend the vast number of Americans.
Conversely, Republicans’ notion that Democrats in the majority will prevent things from getting done does not hold up when this Congress cannot manage to address any major issue other than an unpopular tax plan. It is not as if Republicans have been passing all sorts of helpful measures on immigration, health care, infrastructure, trade, etc.
No one would be foolish enough to predict midterm elections this far out. Nevertheless, if Republicans don’t do something dramatic to alter the trajectory of the race, at least one house will have a Democratic majority. And then Americans can rest just a little easier at night.