Quora: Look to Republicans to Lead the Trump Opposition

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Answer from Brad Porter, political watcher, writer and occasional worker:

Who is the de facto leader of the opposition for the Trump Administration in 2017? There are sort of two ways you could take this. The first sense is the practical—who has the authority to oversee the policies of President Trump and check or push back against them in some meaningful way? In that sense, the real answer is the judicial branch. But the de facto leaders of the opposition to the Trump administration in 2017 are not, in fact, Democrats at all. Rather, they are the congressional Republicans. They are what will—or will not—stand in the way of bad Trump policies, and they are from whom “checks and balances” will have to come, if they are to come at all.

The two men who will largely determine the course of the Trump Administration are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Granted, Democrats will stand in opposition, but ultimately, they’re going to be in the minority in Congress at least for the next few years. As such, they are severely handicapped in what they will be able to accomplish, in terms of meaningful opposition. Trump has made it relatively clear that he has no interest in working with them, could not care less about their dissent, and has no plans to somehow appeal to or work with them. As such, there is not much of a political or practical cost that the Dems can inflict on Trump directly. Oh they can hold some stuff up, and they can certainly complain, but they simply don’t have the critical mass needed to actually get in the way of policy. Trump and the GOP can more or less restrict them to booing on the sidelines.

That is, if the Republican caucus stays in Trump’s camp.

Ultimately, much of the success or failure regarding Trump’s ability to execute his policies is going to come down to whether the GOP congressional leadership stays on board, or not. If the Democrats can start peeling away Republican congressmen and start cobbling together some kind of working majority that way, then meaningful opposition to Trump can begin. Alternatively, the GOP can deny them that, but to do that they will likely have to exact some kind of influence on Trump to tamp down the worst of his excesses—they can do some inside dirty boxing and horse-trading to try to piece out of Trump’s platform some kind of workable policy and talking point structure that their members can take back to their voters.

Trump Congress

President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on February 28th. Trump cleverly used race and rhetoric to bolster his hardline nationalist policies on trade and immigration. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo

Right now, Trump has all the leverage, as he’s the new president, and the Republican congressional leadership appears to be taking a mostly hands-off (or rather “stay out of the way”) approach. But as time goes on, that pendulum is going to swing the other way, and Trump will have to rely on Ryan and McConnell to get anything substantial done (and moderate or blue state Republicans who they will need to keep in line). Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will certainly play roles in that, but as supporting players more than leads.

Likewise, in addition to an actual proactive agenda and legislation, any investigations, subpoenas, or direct blowback against executive overreach will have to be at the instigation of congressional Republicans. Again, the Democrats have some options, but at the end of the day, all roads will have to go through the congressional Republican caucus one way or another (note: this all changes if the Dems win a majority back, but the map for them in 2018 is tough as hell so realistically I don’t know that that happens during Trump’s first term).

The second way to take this question is more in the moral or political sense—who has the standing and platform to criticize Trump and rally support against him? Whose criticisms might go the farthest in spurring actual action?

There are a lot of good answers here already: I think, in the early days at least, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Keith Ellison, and Senator Chuck Schumer have all sort of stood out in this regard. But, again, let me throw two out there that aren’t Democrats at all.

The first I’d throw out there is Senator John McCain. Right now, there is not a whole lot going on in terms of meaningful Republican opposition to Trump. For the most part, Trump’s win has caused most of his right-leaning critics to either openly change their tune (Cruz, Rubio) or, at best, fade muttering into the background (Romney, the Bushes, etc). One of the very few voices with any great standing in the party or ability to actually be problematic for Trump who has NOT followed that pattern has been McCain.

He’s been holding his tongue largely, but already he’s been sending out a lot of either passive aggressive sniping or actual congressional pushback at Trump. McCain is a lifer and well regarded within the party (particularly to the people who matter most: donors, media and other Republican politicians), and he also just got elected to a six-year term, likely his last, so he really doesn’t have much to lose or much incentive to put up with Trump’s bullshit. Already on things like torture and Russia, he’s been a strong and swift voice of opposition, and I would expect that to continue and that opposition to only deepen as time goes by. So, I would keep a close eye on McCain.

The second name I would throw out there is Evan McMullin. He has already been a thorn in Trump’s side, and he has consistently served as something like the good angel on Republican shoulders - and currently, a voice of sanity and refuge for folks, like me, who identify as Republican but think Trump is the current biggest threat going to traditional conservatism. He has articulated a clear, consistent and conservative opposition to the Trump administration, and it doesn’t appear like he’s going away any time soon. 

So, all of those guys I just named are Republican. That’s not just because I’m a Republican, but because, I believe, that concrete and impactful opposition to Trump is not going to originate necessarily on the left. So long as it’s simply a partisan divide, Trump wins—Democrats will be able to channel a lot of anger and raise a chorus of voices, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be at the mercy of the actions of others (specifically, the judicial branch and congressional Republicans). Real checks and balances are only going to come when at least some meaningful opposition to Trump emerges on the right and in the center-right. So long as Republicans stay in line—and so long as they fear Trump more than they fear their voters—Trump is going to largely have the ability to enact his agenda. Where fissures begin to develop is where true opposition might begin to take hold, and in my mind it’s those four, far more than any Democrat, that our republic hinges on now.

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