Yeah. Why would a would-be president from one party, who’ll be making dozens of critical appointments that require Senate confirmation, have a strong preference as to whether his party controls the Senate or not?
You would think a guy whose coattails at the top of the ballot are in question would want to make an emphatic point in interviews about how urgent it is for the GOP to hang onto Congress. “The wall doesn’t have a prayer of being built,” he could say to his fans, “unless you’re voting Republican in every race this November.” Which is true. There’s no way a Democratic Senate (or House) would go along with Trump’s most politically incorrect proposals, at least not without major concessions. Pushing his voters hard to elect Republicans down-ballot would also earn Trump lots of goodwill from a party establishment that’s still skittish about him. It’d be a terrific unity gesture. Instead he sounds almost indifferent.
None of this seems to overly concern Trump. When I asked him recently whether the party’s maintaining its majority in the Senate meant anything to him, he replied: “Well, I’d like them to do that. But I don’t mind being a free agent, either.” Trump has shown similarly little interest in helping his party’s committees build the sort of war chests typically required in a campaign year. After winning the presidential nomination on a shoestring budget and with fewer paid staff members than the average candidate for governor, he has been visibly reluctant to help build much in the way of national campaign infrastructure, sending a clear message to his fellow Republicans: This fall, you’re on your own. As Ryan Williams, a strategist with the 2012 Romney presidential campaign, told me: “Traditionally, the nominee has a robust campaign that absorbs the R.N.C. effort and works in tandem with the down-ballot campaigns. We did that with Romney in 2012. This time around, there’s a complete void at the presidential level. Trump’s trying to play a game of baseball and hasn’t put out an infield.”
You can read that one of three ways. One: He’s so eager to pander to disaffected Sanders voters that he’s running as a de facto independent the rest of the way. Republicans in control of Congress? Sure, that’d be nice, but Democrats would be fine too. Frankly, if he follows through on his flirtation with raising the minimum wage and increasing the government’s role in health care, a Democratic Senate would make things much easier on him than a Republican one would. Two: His image as a strongman depends on the perception that he’ll impose his will on any adversary. If he admits that he can’t pass his agenda or confirm his judges without help from congressional Republicans then he’s admitting he’s not the Green Lantern superhero his fans imagine him to be. Can’t do that. Three: The guy simply doesn’t know the Constitution well enough to grasp how laws are passed and presidential appointments are made. He genuinely might not fully grasp why it’s crucial for Republicans to control both branches in order to move his agenda. I’d give equal odds on each.
There’s a fourth theory, I guess: If #NeverTrumpers are right that Trump has always been more interested in winning the election than in governing afterward, it’d make sense that he wouldn’t feel strongly about who controls Congress. He’ll still be president either way. And with no Republican majority in the Senate dragging him to the right, he wouldn’t feel as much pressure to pass the sort of very conservative program that obviously doesn’t appeal to him. The ideal situation for a President Trump, in fact, might be a Democratic Senate with a Republican House since it would give him a reason to govern from the center. Nothing’s getting done without compromise from both parties, he could say, which means neither ideological extreme can expect to have its way. He really would be a “free agent” in the sense that he’d have more cover to indulge his centrist tendencies in policymaking than he would otherwise. Would that damage him in seeking reelection in 2020 as conservatives stew for four years over his deals with Chuck Schumer? Nah. If the lame Republican leadership and the even lamer conservative movement couldn’t muster the will to stop him this year, they’re surely not going to muster it when he’s a sitting president. He’s not wrong about his potential “free agent” status. But why he’d say it at a moment when Republican voters are wondering how much they can trust him, I can’t begin to understand.