As Washington moves from a week of twin setbacks for Donald J. Trump – the damaging testimony of onetime confidant and consigliere Michael Cohen followed only hours later by the collapse of the Hanoi summit negotiations on North Korean nuclear weapons – it is increasingly clear that the Republican Party that the President has tried to mould in his own image is grappling with twin challenges:
What is the extent of Republican loyalty to a president who regularly attacks the party establishment and has steered the party away from many of its historic policy moorings? And what, in the Trump era, is the raison d’être of the contemporary Republican Party anyway?
Democrats have less concrete power in the American capital today but possess a more concrete sense of purpose: Though they know their policy dreams of preserving or expanding America’s health-care plan and of enacting much, if not all, of the environmental and economic aims of the Green New Deal are beyond their immediate reach, they are primed to fight Mr. Trump’s immigration notions this month, to defeat him at the polls in November, 2020, and to press ahead with investigations into Mr. Trump’s affairs through the summer and perhaps beyond.
Indeed, the Democrats’ principal purpose in the months ahead – and as Washington awaits the potentially explosive release of the report by special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III – was set out succinctly in the remarks that House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah E. Cummings issued at the outset of the Michael Cohen hearing. ‘’Here is how I view our role,’’ the Maryland Democrat said in brief but illuminating remarks. ‘’Every one of us in this room has a duty to serve as an independent check on the Executive Branch. We are searching for the truth.’’
The Republicans’ principal purpose in the new week now unfolding, as in last week’s television spectacle on Capitol Hill, is to continue to describe Mr. Cohen—who already had admitted he had repeatedly lied about his relationship with, and the duties he performed for, Mr. Trump—as a serial purveyor of untruths. With the disappearance of their one-time power base in the House of Representatives, which only three years ago was an idea factory for the new American conservatism, and with the Senate standing only as a check on the newly energized Democrats in the House, the mission of the GOP increasingly is little more than to preserve Mr. Trump’s prerogatives or to run to Mr. Trump’s defense.
‘’When you lose control of the house you lose control of the agenda,’’ said Frank I. Luntz, a Washington-based Republican pollster. ‘’The Senate does confirmations and has the mechanisms of government but Democrats in the House decide what to vote on. It may have no impact at all—the Senate won’t pass their legislation, the President won’t sign it—but they control the conversation.’’
The Republicans’ new defensive profile is completely at odds with the self-image the GOP has sculpted since one of Mr. Luntz’s clients, Newt Gingrich, catapulted it into power in the House in 1995 and used the office of House Speaker as a platform for churning out innovative policy proposals. The Republicans of that period—indeed of the entire period leading up to the nomination of Mr. Trump in the summer of 2016–spoke of themselves as ‘’the party of ideas’’ and, borrowing a 1948 phrase from the philosopher Richard Weaver, trumpeted the notion that ‘’ideas have consequences.’’
And yet the irony in Washington today is that the political dynamic that operated for the first two years of the Trump ascendancy has been set on its head. Though there will be some GOP defections when the Senate takes up the House Democrats’ resolution to thwart Mr. Trump‘s border emergency early this month, the Republicans who hold the Senate and the White House comprise a party that is on the defensive and a party that increasingly is behaving—true to Mr. Trump’s image as an outsider battling entrenched forces in a ‘‘deep state’’ in the capital—almost more like the opposition in a parliamentary democracy than the Democrats.
Moreover, the two parties are so far apart in their perspectives and profiles — and the Democrat’s seizure of the House has so profoundly changed the political calculus in Washington—that little can be expected to be accomplished on Capitol Hill for the next two years except deadlock.
‘’The Founding Fathers designed a system that would either require compromise or grind to a halt with little getting done,’’ said William McInturff, a prominent Republican political strategist who was the pollster for GOP presidential nominee Senator John McCain’s 2008 campaign. ‘’They did a masterful job. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, do not expect much significant action with our divided government.’’
At the same time, the political position of the President is so precarious that the testimony of a flawed witness like Mr. Cohen—whose comments did not even veer into dangerous areas being examined by Mr. Mueller — seemed to increase the President’s political vulnerability even as his withdrawal from talks with Kim Jong-un seemed designed to minimize Mr. Trump’s susceptibility to charges from both left and right that, in desperation for a deal, he would take any deal the North Korean leader proffered.
‘’For the first time there is a Watergate cast to the Trump drama,’’ said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian who edited some of the White House tapes produced by President Richard M. Nixon, who left office in disgrace in 1974. ‘’You can see a very slippery slope for the Trump presidency. Cohen wasn’t [Nixon White House counselor] John Dean and there were no big revelations, but there was enough to cause trouble in Trumpland. And like during the Nixon years, impeachment was in the air.’’
The last week put more oxygen in the effort to impeach Mr. Trump, a project that has been discouraged by Democratic leaders. The fresh danger for Democrats: This new urgency to move against the President may force Democratic leaders to do what their leaders —who believe there will not be 67 votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to remove Mr. Trump and who know that many of the most ardent advocates of impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998 paid a heavy price for their position—believe will be futile.
For the Republicans, decisive action is beyond their current capability or even their inclination. For the Democrats, decisive action could mean ultimate political peril. That is the new politics of Washington, a dramatic change from only a year ago.