While one can accurately question the chess moves made by President Donald Trump, often referred to as “Captain Chaos,” the strategic abilities of Washington’s Republican leadership are even more questionable.
President Trump’s budget deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, over the objections of surprised Republican congressional leaders, is just one such blunder. While Republican leaders wanted a long-term deal, Trump adopted terms offered by the Democrat leadership that kicks the can down the road until December, setting up a wild and difficult holiday season for GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.
Most news reports consider spite to be the President’s motivation for accepting the Democrats’ deal. We all know putting the screws to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan is a far pettier pursuit than moving forward a meaningful policy proposal, but nobody should be surprised at this occurrence. It was an inevitable consequence of the way Republican leadership has approached the new president from day one, and it was a completely avoidable mistake. Granted, you could say that about most things involving Republican leaders over the past decade.
Wisdom From Sun Tzu For Today’s GOP
A must-read for anyone involved in strategy, particularly military and political, is the fifth century Chinese military treatise “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu. A widely-quoted lesson therein advises victorious strategists to seek battle only when the war has already been won: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, the defeated warriors of the Republican establishment, who never dreamed the words “president” and “Trump” would ever be used together, have stupidly battled against the president, essentially blocking any of his policy goals since he came into office.
What did GOP leaders think would happen? Did they think Trump would suddenly agree to support their plans instead of his own? Or that telling the president he doesn’t understand how things operate on Capitol Hill would work?
As a Gen X-er who has had the “pleasure” of working for and with Baby Boomers for most of my career, I’ve lived this situation and I know how it plays out. When an organization gets a new leader who is not the first choice of executive management, you have two choices. (Yes, in this scenario Republican leadership in Congress are managers within the organization.)
Giving Ground Is Key To Winning Victory
The first option is to try and thwart the new leader’s ideas and plans at every chance. But despite your efforts, the new leader will eventually find someone else who will pursue their plans (for instance, by cutting a deal with Democrat leaders). Trying to thwart every perceived bad idea only leads to more negative downside risk.
Suppression fires in forest management are a good analogy: trying to suppress every single small fire will eventually lead to a huge, out-of-control forest fire from which you may never recover.
The second option requires giving ground, in hopes that you can get something in return down the road, or at least limit the damage. Give the dog a bone—preferably one that takes time to execute. The leader will be able to talk about the progress of their effort over time, and will give you breathing room to enact efforts you do support and essentially buy time. Funding for a border wall would be a good example: takes a long time, satisfies campaign pledge, et cetera. You’re in risk mitigation mode. Stop trying to suppress every bad idea you loathe.
When you’re in this situation, trying to convince a leader you didn’t choose—who has veto power over your own initiatives—that you’re right and they’re wrong has no chance of success.
Some will chafe at the description of congressional leadership as executive or middle management. Yes, Congress is collectively one leg of the balance of power in Washington, and members should be the voices of their districts. Congress has to check the president.
That said, McConnell and Ryan are managers of a dysfunctional division within the GOP brand that possesses approval ratings just this side of ambulance-chasing attorneys. Most Republican voters believe McConnell and Ryan manage the “division” that can’t get anything done and is focused on trying to satisfy suppliers (lobbyists, K Street, etc.) instead of their customers and the CEO.
This also one of the reasons McConnell and Ryan now have the current CEO whom voters sent to Washington, in large part, to clean up their dysfunctional operations.
The GOP Needs To Pass Something
If there’s any hope for the damaged Republican brand—and the sanity of anyone watching this slow-motion train wreck—GOP leaders on the Hill must demonstrate some skill and competency by passing something supported by the president. It’s impossible to build influence with an executive or with voters when you have no track record of success. Repair your division’s reputation so you can convince the President to move forward with your agenda, instead of with proposals you oppose.
Get members of your division in line to support and pass something and simply lead. Play offense.
Republicans also have to face reality. They have a leader they despise, and they are stuck with him for the next three to seven years. Stasis and obstruction are short-term tactics, not a viable long-term strategy. If they want to save their party, they should compromise with the president the way they’ve compromised with members of the of the opposition party numerous times over the years. Congress knows how to do this. They just need to explain to their lobbyist comrades on K Street that they will have to accept some losses.
If the GOP does not do this, the president has already demonstrated he will find another dancing partner. And the consequences will be far worse and more damaging to the party’s future than simply giving a little to move something forward. Republicans simply don’t have the currency and support to do anything else.