What about a health-care bill, Mitch?

Kevin Williamson
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell address the media during the 2017 "Congress of Tomorrow" Joint Republican Issues Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., January 26, 2017.
Mark Makela | Reuters

Donald Trump is on the hunt for a scapegoat, and he has settled on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He isn't entirely wrong to do so.

As a candidate, Trump promised big doings: repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with — well, he was never very clear on that point. He promised big tax reform and sweeping regulatory reform, improved trade terms, and a big, beautiful wall paid for by a magical surcharge on Mexicans. None of that has come to pass, and Trump, who is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging his own surfeit of personal and professional failures, blames Congress.

Trump presented himself to the voters as a master negotiator and dealmaker, but that of course was the character he played on television, not the actual man. Trump cannot sit down with congressional Republicans — much less a bipartisan coalition — and negotiate a deal on health-care reform. The reasons for this are straightforward: There is disagreement among Republicans about what policies should be forwarded, and President Trump does not know what he himself thinks about any of them, because he does not think anything about any of them, because he doesn't know about them.

Trump does not do details — he does adjectives. He wants a "terrific" health-care system. So does Bernie Sanders, but the two of them don't agree on what that means in practice. At least, they don't agree anymore: Trump has in the past endorsed the same single-payer system that the grumpy little socialist Muppet from Vermont prefers, which he, or whoever writes the books published under his name, described at some length in his 2000 offering The America We Deserve. He pointed to Canada as an example of how health care in the United States should be organized. He might even have believed that for a week or two, but Trump is simply too lazy to do the intellectual work necessary to develop a coherent position beyond his facile superlatives.

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Trump's lazy ignorance encompasses much more than health care. In his decades as a vocal NAFTA critic, he has never offered in any specific detail any proposal for reforming any particular provision of NAFTA, and he has on occasion made it clear that he does not know what is actually in the accord. His public statements about tax reform have been all over the map, out-lefting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with his attacks on the carried-interest treatment of some financial firms' income and then doing his best impersonation (which is a very poor one) of Larry Kudlow preaching the gospel of pro-growth tax cuts. He once reversed and then reverse-reversed himself on H-1B visas over the course of a few hours. Expecting Donald Trump to act as a chief executive, lead negotiator, and deal-artist on recondite questions of policy and politics is foolish. His petulant tweets at Mitch McConnell — "Baby want sumthin to sign!" — communicate his expectations of himself quite well.

So why hasn't McConnell sent him something to sign?

The president is a weak leader, especially when it comes to questions of substance, but McConnell is not, and neither is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. But — and I write this as an earnest admirer of both men — they may be the wrong men for the job. The wily McConnell and the steadfast Ryan were fine and effective opposition leaders. But they are not in the opposition any more. McConnell has been the Senate majority leader since January 3, 2015. Paul Ryan has passed through a series of senior leadership posts since 2011: chairman of the Budget Committee, chairman of Ways and Means, speaker of the House.

They have had a long time to get their legislative acts together. Of course, it would be easier to forge consensus if they had a president who knew or cared about the substance of the policy questions before them, but in the absence of such a president, it falls to the legislative leaders to do what needs doing. The British dumped Winston Churchill after the war, considering him a wartime leader unsuited to the needs of peacetime. If McConnell and Ryan do not want to be considered opposition leaders — and if the Republican party does not want to be considered an opposition party incapable of government — then now is the time to give us all reason to think otherwise.

Give the damned fool something to sign.

Dwight Eisenhower was happy to see off the Republican Senate majority in 1955, finding Lyndon Johnson's Democrats easier to work with than William Knowland and the Taftite Republicans who wanted to reverse the New Deal. (My people.) Trump, a dedicated explorer on the path of least resistance, may be making a similar calculation: Working with congressional Republicans is more work than working against them. Why let them be stumbling blocks when they are such handy whipping boys?

McConnell probably is safe for now, mainly because he has a job no one else wants. He is one of the few Republicans in the Senate not possessed by the delusion that he is fated to be president. If one of those promising young men bruised by the ugly 2016 Republican presidential primaries should ever come to his senses and decide that Senate majority leader is actually a pretty good job, things might go differently. Ted Cruz seems to like being a senator and might benefit from meditating upon the career of Lyndon Johnson. Marco Rubio actually has the political skills and personal ability to be a real leader in the Senate, but he doesn't seem quite convinced that's worth doing. Rand Paul is a bit of a lone wolf. Put your ear to the ground and you won't hear a stampede to Rob Portman or Pat Toomey. Ben Sasse would elevate the office.

However that goes, Republicans need congressional leadership. As ridiculous as it is to see the president of these United States bawling on social media that he just wants something to sign, McConnell and Ryan really ought to send him something to sign. If they cannot get that done, then they should make room for new leaders who can. Unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches is not going to last forever, and there is much that needs to be done before the fickle fancy of the voters alights upon some new shiny object.

Commentary by Kevin Williamson, a roving correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @kevinNR.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

©2017 National Review. Used with permission.