Why Donald Trump Should Listen to the Tea Party

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Congress must re-exert itself as a coequal branch of government.

"Anybody who doesn't think Donald Trump can win, just watch." — Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, May 2016

Congratulations to the Republican establishment. Trump won. Yet, in that victory, there needs to be some appreciation for the fact that they presented a human Rorschach test to the voters and let them see the policy agenda they wanted to see while building a coalition around opposition to Hillary Clinton. Now they have to put meat on the bones of a plan. Fast.

The best way to do that? Rely on Congress, a coequal branch of government filled with elected officials who live and breath at the intersection of policy and politics.  

No doubt, Trump will chafe at this, both because of his personality and because he won a hard-fought election. He will likely feel he should drive the agenda, whatever that may be. But Trump’s success will depend on navigating policy equities. Be honest. What about the 2016 campaign signals that Trump has thought about that. Crooked Hillary is vanquished. On to budgets.

To be sure, Trump’s recent comity with House Speaker Paul Ryan shows promise, showing that Trump can ignore the advice of his campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who thinks that, “Paul Ryan is the enemy.”  Nevertheless, an agreement at this stage should be easy. No conservative or Republican would disagree with an agenda to rip out the Obama years, root and branch. Ryan wants what Trump’s advisors want. But eventually, the easy stuff will be gone. Trump will face competing policy interests and a cacophony of voter opinions. Trump must navigate those waters in real time, and if not done precisely, he will face rough sailing.

Fiscal, foreign policy, social conservatism: all things the campaign did not touch on. Running against Hillary Clinton did not force him to develop ideas that brought the traditional Reagan coalition into the tent.  As Trump correctly pointed out, Clinton’s 30-year existence did that.

But Clinton’s existential distraction camouflaged that voters crave a change from the failed policies and profligate spending of the Bush and Obama years. Trump proved well-attuned to the anger these policy failures created. But anger is just the symptom. Failed policy is the disease.

During the campaign, being anti-Hillary was the agenda, but she is now duly dispatched. Mission accomplished. Now the arduous task of governing looms before Trump.

A corollary to that means that Congress must re-exert itself as a co-equal branch of government; it cannot be the lifeless, reactive body it showed itself to be during the Obama and Bush years. Congress must at least try to lead and push an agenda—and Trump needs them to do so while he develops his own.

The Framers designed Congress as a coequal branch of government close to voters and states.  Congress knows the pulse of the people better than anyone. They may not act upon it, but they know it.  Its Members are aware what voters want and, if they have the courage of their convictions, have the ability to lead the GOP out of the swamp where they resided the last sixteen years. If Trump is smart, he will follow.

To get out of the swamp Trump will face three landmines:

First, foreign policy. Americans want to win again on foreign policy. No laughing. The Iraq war did not become unpopular just because America overreached; nor did most voters delve into (pseudo) political science arguments about whether an Arab country can absorb democracy. To be sure, most voters tired of the expense in blood and treasure, but, without knowing it, Trump hit upon an important theme in Alexander Hamilton's writings.

It came up in Hamilton's 1791 Report on Manufacturing, in his 1793 Pacifus, as well as in the resulting argument with James Madison. He referred to it in Federalist No. 6 and Federalist No. 72, where he said it was a restraint on individual politicians. Paraphrasing (and condensing a lot) Hamilton made the point that voters and politicians partially determine national and personal interests by gauging the likelihood of success. Likely failures are not in the national interest; politicians will not push policies unless they will bask in glory, etc.

The converse is that isolationism eventually irritates voters because isolation just means forfeiting the game. A middle ground exists and who has practice trying to find it ever since the Bush years? Congress. Remember, the 2016 primary foreign policy debate ranged from one extreme to another. Neither of those extremes will do, but Congress spends an inordinate amount of time debating what voters care about enough to merit applying their shoulder.

Related, many Members of Congress have had front row seats to our failed policy towards Islamic radicalism since 2001. Trump should heed their advice as he has not showered himself in glory on this particular issue. His policy against Islamic radicalism seems to be that a president should say the phrase "Islamic extremism" a lot. He will have the keys to the Oval Office, so he may go inside and shout it as much as he wants, but he still must show progress on the issue.