Fact check: Mostly true! It’s unseemly for a president to take a “buck stops there” approach to his own party’s failings, as Trump himself can certainly be criticized for poor leadership on health care, but there’s no denying that he’s largely a prisoner of Senate math and calcified GOP factionalism. McConnell’s saddled with a two-vote margin of error and a caucus with competing power centers (the Collins centrists, the Paul conservatives) that usually can muster more than two votes in opposition. How do you get to 50? Even if Trump had been less foolish in needlessly alienating potential allies like McCain with his POW comments in 2015 or Bob Corker with his attacks on “Liddle Bob” a few weeks ago, getting anything passed was always going to be hard. Senate Republicans themselves are sober about the consequences of their failure to produce:
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) warned that Republicans could face a “Watergate-level blowout” in the midterm elections if they don’t make major legislative strides on taxes and health care, invoking the political scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency and set back the GOP considerably in subsequent elections.
“If tax reform crashes and burns, if [on] Obamacare, nothing happens, we could face a bloodbath,” said Cruz, who spoke in a moderated discussion.
Lindsey Graham was similarly apocalyptic:
JOHN DICKERSON: The president’s put a lot on Congress’ plate. There’s the question of the dreamers, there’s now this health care, there’s Iran, you’ve got to get a budget passed in order to set up tax reform. Are you going to get tax reform done?
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah, if we don’t, we’re dead. You’re going to ask me about Bannon, so I’ll just go and ask myself.
JOHN DICKERSON: Steve Bannon, the president’s former advisor.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yea so what’s going on? It’s a symptom of a greater problem. If we don’t cut taxes and we don’t eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, then we’re going to lose across the board in the House in 2018. And all of my colleagues running in primaries in 2018 will probably get beat. It will be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it. So this is a symptom of a greater problem. If we do cut taxes and we do repeal and replace Obamacare, it doesn’t matter what Bannon do because we’ll win.
That’s a shrewd point by Graham about Bannon’s own very shrewd opportunism. Roy Moore looked likely to win the Alabama Senate primary even before Bannon hopped aboard the bandwagon; as Graham says, Republican incumbents will be in deep trouble in the primaries next year with or without Bannon backing challengers if they fail to move Trump’s agenda. The populist backlash to the GOP establishment in the primaries may be less Bannon-driven than Bannon-ridden, with the Breitbart chief sensing that people like Jeff Flake are already ripe for being knocked off and wanting to make sure there’s a bold populist imprimatur on it if and when it happens.
In fact, Trump’s mention of Bannon here will probably send more of a shudder through Congress than his “blame them, not me” comments do. With the rare exception like Flake, whose conflict with Trump has become personal, POTUS probably can’t endorse any of the Bannon-backed populist challengers in the primaries next year. It’s too risky: It’ll piss off all of the Senate Republicans who aren’t up for reelection and it’ll risk a Luther-Strange-type embarrassment if the ones who are end up defeating their Trump-backed challengers. What Trump *can* do, though, is wink approvingly at Bannon’s effort like he did here (or call Bannon up to encourage his primary efforts privately!). This clip, while short, is really two campaign ads in one, and neither for the incumbents in his own party. The line about not getting the job done will be used by Bannon in the primaries against McConnell’s caucus and then used again by Democrats in the general election. Trump’s not wrong, but it’s one thing to think it and another to say it.
Speaking of things that probably shouldn’t be said aloud, how are we feeling about this eyebrow-raising anecdote from the New Yorker?
— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) October 16, 2017
“Fake news”? Just Trump’s locker-room sense of humor or at work? Or a little window into how our “New York values” president views the great mass of religious conservatives who supported him enthusiastically?
Trump on Congress: "We're not getting the job done. And I'm not going to blame myself. I'll be honest. They are not getting the job done." pic.twitter.com/9IVt3hE1kC
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 16, 2017
Update: Well, this is surprising. So much for winking at Bannon’s primary push in that press conference earlier.
As former adviser Steve Bannon targets Sen. McConnell and Senate GOP, Pres. Trump says his relationship with McConnell "is outstanding." pic.twitter.com/dw98qV8rvI
— ABC News (@ABC) October 16, 2017
He didn’t stop there, either:
Trump on "some" of Bannon's primary targets: “I’m gonna see if we can talk him out of that, because I think they’re great people.”
— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) October 16, 2017
Yeesh. Trump versus Bannon, round two?
Axios explained the reason for this cold peace in an item yesterday: Simply put, this week is make or break for tax reform. Passing a budget now is a necessary prerequisite to passing tax reform later; a showy demonstration of party unity by Trump and McConnell makes it marginally more likely.