Abraham Lincoln noted poignantly that a “House divided cannot stand.” Recent events indicate the Republican party has much to learn from the past. A party divided cannot govern. And a president with his majority party split cannot exercise his Constitutional authority.
The inability of the Republican leadership to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was a set back for President Trump. Freedom Caucus members in the House refused to pass legislation that they regarded as little more than tinkering with Obamacare. And despite the urging of President Trump and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan consensus could not be achieved.
Then there is the schism over the border tax. A host of conservative organizations are launching a furious campaign against a new tax on imports proposed by many House Republicans, imperiling a Republican plan for a tax overhaul. Much like the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the import tax is dividing conservatives, the business sector and deep pocket members of the party. Along the way, it is exposing the ideological divide between nationalist policies Trump has advocated and the free market – small government movement ensconced in the party.
For Trump, the free market generally benefits wealthy elites at the expense of American workers. For free traders, the border tax is a burden on consumers and a hidden factor in rising prices.
A profusion of strategic and political motives also divide Republicans. For Paul Ryan, who is a conventional free trade advocate, the new tax is a way to satisfy Trump’s protectionist impulse without imposing punitive tariffs. Free traders contend the new tax and a tariff represent a distinction without a difference.
It is also instructive that recent foreign policy decisions have encouraged the federal government’s GOP to look and sound like Democrats that have turned inward. Trump’s America First speech on foreign policy, came right out of the Charles Lindbergh playbook. Would Trump be willing to challenge the unilaterally established air perimeter zone in the South China Sea? Would a significant number of Republicans reject such an initiative?
The foreign policy tests for Trump are starting to emerge. In most respects these will be more formidable challenges than those on the domestic front. In fact, without party unity on this matter the country could be lost.
On the bright side, it often takes a new administration months before it has a firm grasp of policy parameters. But the sooner division is overcome, the better. America needs a party where differences can be addressed through compromise and negotiation. The real disappointment lies in a leadership that assumed consensus would emerge naturally.
Trump is an activist, but he has to learn when his intervention in a policy area is warranted and when it is not. He must delegate and he must lead. He cannot be shackled by events and he cannot assume his outsized ego can thwart disagreement. The right personnel and good policy go hand and glove. Melding them is the key factor. On that score, Trump should not have a problem if he keeps his head down, his palms up and his eyes focused on the goal.