Critics of President Trump want Republicans to do more. The argument goes something like this: Some Republicans like Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona have cast Trump as historically dangerous, leading a “daily disassembling of our democratic institutions,” in Flake’s words. Trump critics argue that, if this is their view, this moment in history compels them to do everything possible to limit Trump — to oppose Trump more than just rhetorically. With McCain suffering from brain cancer and not on Capitol Hill, the Senate is basically divided between 50 members who vote with the GOP and 49 who vote with the Democrats. Flake or any other Republican senator, their critics argue, could single-handedly grind Trump’s entire agenda to a halt. They could prevent a vote on Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, or force a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller.
Instead, the few Republicans in the Senate willing to criticize Trump1 have mostly done only that, spurring some eye-rolling exasperation from people who want action, not just words. But we think this vein of criticism of Trump-skeptical Republicans is, well, kind of wrong. It ignores the power of words to serve as a reminder that Trump isn’t an entirely normal Republican, and that he doesn’t have complete Republican support — at least, not all the time. It’s true that Flake and other Trump-skeptical Republicans could do much, much more. But that doesn’t mean what they’re doing now is meaningless.
Weakening the impact of Trump’s rhetoric
Political scientists have done a great deal of research to figure out how much the president’s words matter — if they matter at all. Here’s what’s generally agreed upon: Presidential communication matters in a number of important ways. It can shape what issues citizens think about in the first place, how the public views the particular meaning or context of a major event, and provide important cues to partisans about where the party stands on a given issue.
Trump is facing a different dynamic than other presidents, though: He’s regularly contradicted by members of his own party on Capitol Hill. Take the president’s downplaying of Russian interference in the 2016 election. It will be harder for Trump to convince even most Republicans of these arguments as long as senators from his own party, like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, keep saying there was interference. Indeed, a (small) majority of Republicans believe the U.S. intelligence agencies’ finding that Russia interfered.
Or take the issue of relations with Russia more generally. Republicans, perhaps influenced by Trump’s push to build closer ties with Vladimir Putin and his regime, have more favorable views toward Russia than they once did. But still only 40 percent in the GOP see Russia as an ally or friend to the U.S. Similarly, about a third of Republicans opposed the administration’s since-reversed policy that resulted in parents being separated from their children at the border. And about a fifth of Republicans oppose the president’s signature campaign proposal to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. On all of these issues, Trump has faced vocal resistance from Flake and other Republicans.
On paper, Trump, particularly on foreign policy, can still largely ignore Congress and implement his agenda if he chooses. But in reality, he keeps backtracking. Take his interest in implementing a more pro-Russia foreign policy. We think the criticism from congressional Republicans is a big part of that hesitancy on Trump’s part. The verbal opposition from fellow Republicans tends to lead to an escalation of opposition against Trump. Criticism by fellow Republicans frees the press, always leery of appearing too liberal, to attack controversial Trump initiatives more directly. That bipartisan and media opposition helps move the public in these instances to oppose what Trump is doing. Facing such opposition, the president often retreats.
Words can affect actions
The line between actions and words is not as clear as it might seem. When Trump is considering some new policy or appointment and a senator like Flake says he will oppose it, those are just words. But they have seemed to constrain the president. For example, when Trump was hinting last year that he wanted to fire Jeff Sessions, the attorney general’s former colleagues in the Senate almost universally defended him and suggested that they would not confirm another Trump pick to run the Justice Department. Sessions remains.
When the White House said last week that it was considering allowing the Russian government to interrogate Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, the Senate passed a 98-0 nonbinding resolution condemning the idea, which the administration had by then disavowed.
“I know a lot of people don’t put much stock into words, but I think they are more constraining of presidents than most people think, given how they shape public opinion and shape potential public reactions to future presidential actions,” said Matt Glassman, a congressional expert at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
“Why hasn’t [Trump] fired Mueller? I think a lot of it has to do with the myriad of GOP senators who have told him there will be hell to pay,” Glassman added.
Sure, you might say, Trump has to threaten to fire a special counsel investigating him or think about handing over a Putin critic to the Russians before Republican senators criticize him. It does seem to take fairly unprecedented Trump moves to get GOP congressmen to criticize the president. But that’s exactly the point in some ways: If Trump were acting like a “normal” president, we don’t think Democrats would be as outraged by his behavior in the first place nor be describing their opposition to him as a resistance. Liberals are often outraged when Trump takes actions that it seems unlikely a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would take — and Republicans like Flake are often objecting to these same actions.
Policy vs. everything else
Critics of Trump-skeptical Republicans are right about at least one thing: GOP senators, even those most leery of him, are backing the president’s policy agenda. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump score, the most anti-Trump Republican in the Senate is not Flake or Tennessee’s Bob Corker (people who have the political freedom to oppose Trump since they are not running for re-election) but Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who opposes the president’s positions about 25 percent of the time. Flake, Corker, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski support the president’s position about 80 percent of the time, putting them close to the bottom of the GOP conference but way ahead of any Democrat. (West Virginia’s Joe Manchin has backed the Trump position 60 percent of the time, leading his party in the Senate.)
But here’s the big question: Are these senators, in their votes and other moves, embracing the policy vision of Trump, specifically? Or is Trump basically endorsing the views of establishment Republicans?
“Trump really isn’t driving the legislative agenda at all,” Glassman said. “He’s mostly just cheerleading for whatever congressional leaders decide to pass. That was true on Obamacare repeal — he literally supported basically every variation they came up with — and it was largely true on taxes as well.”
Flake, in an interview with FiveThirtyEight, said he was frustrated by the critique that he should try to block the rest of the president’s agenda because he’s concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and policies on some issues.
“To try to force the president to do something, what would you say? ‘We will hold up Kavanaugh, who we think is qualified, hold him up until the president stops being friends with Putin?’” Flake said. (This is exactly the demand of some liberals.)
“Everyone says, ‘Republicans are voting with him 80 percent of the time.’ Ninety percent of what we do … we’re just filling positions,” Flake said. “The undersecretary for Africa was last week. Are we supposed to not staff the presidency at all? A lot of it is unrealistic expectations.
“I’m a conservative,” he added. “For people to expect me to not vote conservative … people last year were saying, ‘You said you’re against this president but you voted to repeal Obamacare.’ I voted to repeal Obamacare 40 times [before the Senate vote last year]. ‘You disagree with this president but you voted for his tax cut.’ We’ve been voting for tax cuts and tax reform before he came along, forever.”
Flake said that he often privately opposes potential Trump appointees for executive branch posts or judgeships and tries to get the administration not to formally nominate those people in the first place.
“I go back to them and say, ‘You’re going to nominate this person … don’t,” he said.
We have no real way of checking how often Flake or other senators are nixing potential Trump nominees privately so that they are never formally submitted. But at least four Trump judicial nominees have been withdrawn after Republican senators signaled that they would oppose them. (Of course, 44 have been confirmed.)
Republicans have voted in line with Trump’s ideology. But we’re not sure they are necessarily voting for Trump’s ideology as much as their own.
If Flake thinks Trump is really terrible, then voting for the tax cuts or Kavanaugh may not be a great strategy: Those moves are likely to increase Trump’s grip on the GOP by giving the president policy wins that he can highlight with the party base. And some Republicans are outright aiding Trump’s more alarming moves, like the House Republicans who have in effect launched a counterinvestigation targeting Mueller and the Department of Justice.
But we think that despite what our own Trump score says, the strategy of Corker and Flake is best understood not as total loyalty to Trump or deep resistance to him, but a kind of middle course.