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Don’t expect this Trump-McConnell bromance to last

  • The press conference with President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made for a nice photo op but don't expect this bromance to last.
  • These two were united for one reason and one reason only: tax reform.
  • This White House and congressional Republicans have very different goals.
  • Eventually, the two sides will be at odds again as President Trump continues to disrupt traditional party politics.
President Donald Trump listens as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, October 16, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
President Donald Trump listens as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, October 16, 2017.

Now that President Donald Trump has put his arm literally and figuratively around Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's shoulders again, the breakdown of traditional binary party politics in Washington is over.

OK, nobody really believes that.

Monday's impromptu news conference and bromance-style joint appearance by President Trump and Senator McConnell was really just about one thing: tax reform.

Choose your cliche. Maybe it's "politics makes strange bedfellows," or perhaps "misery loves company," but both the White House and the congressional Republicans need to get some kind of win on tax reform in the wake of a year with no major legislative achievements other than the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That's what's going on here — not some kind a truly friendly relationship and partnership with actual legs. Trump and McConnell come from such entirely different worlds and perspectives that no matter how big the "big tent" of the Republican Party is right now, it's still probably not big enough for this president and this congressional leader.

And that's a good thing.

"Now, President Trump is trying a slightly different tack on tax reform. He's trying to convince those holdout Senate Republicans that their hold on power is directly connected to passing a tax-cut bill."

Preserving a party's political power has nothing to do with anything other than benefiting those party leaders. Good government always loses out when holding on to office becomes the only real goal. And that kind of team-player partisan politics is a major reason for a lot of the horrific mistakes and pain Washington has imposed on this and other countries for generations. For example, neither party wanted to be labeled as the group that lost the Vietnam War. So after bashing the Democrats for their handling of the carnage in Southeast Asia for years, the Republicans under President Richard Nixon just continued — and at times escalated — the killing and bombing for years. And that followed years of President Lyndon Johnson conducting the war aggressively to avoid charges that his Democratic Party was soft on Communism.

Our $20 trillion and growing national debt is another example of a mistake rooted in the binary two-party system. The one thing each party does once it's in power in Congress is to initiate programs and policies that reward its followers in hopes they will help them remain in power. That's why it really doesn't matter which party is in control in Washington, both are 100 percent likely to spend more money than the federal government has coming in to the U.S. Treasury.

You get the picture.

Along comes President Trump and suddenly the veneers of party unity, and marching in ideological lockstep are starting to fade away quickly. The funny thing is, President Trump proved that the Republican Party was more about holding on to power and less about its own ideology when he challenged the GOP Congress to pass an Obamacare repeal and it failed. It's hard to believe the career Republicans in Washington really believe in anything but themselves when they couldn't even pass a bill to repeal a policy they've uniformly denounced for seven years.

Now, President Trump is trying a slightly different tack on tax reform. He's trying to convince those holdout Senate Republicans that their hold on power is directly connected to passing a tax-cut bill. The more he publicly pushes the economic argument for tax reform, and privately assures GOP officeholders they're jobs are at stake, the better chances this plan has to pass.

Notice the key difference here: Previous presidents facing the kind of super-thin congressional majority in their parties that President Trump faced on day one would make their legislative priorities rely on getting more Republicans re-elected and elected in the midterm elections. Under the old paradigm, the White House and the Republicans would pursue a legislative agenda that was more muted with the focus on playing "not to lose" as opposed to an aggressive push for big wins.

But President Trump shattered that safe strategy during the transition period when he challenged the congressional Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare as soon as possible. He was actually putting ideology and policy goals ahead of preservation of party power. And from that point on, there was no place for the GOP to hide. And their failure to not only pass an Obamacare repeal bill but also to package it in any attractive way is a big reason why a new poll has Democrats beating the Republicans by 14 points on a generic congressional ballot for 2018.

Perhaps this is the source of so much of the intraparty anger at President Trump. There's no denying he hurts the Republican brand in many areas with his enduring low approval numbers, and instead of protecting GOP members of Congress he's insisted they live up to their promises. That doesn't mean that people like Senator Bob Corker aren't telling the truth when they question President Trump's fitness for office, but you have to consider the wounded source: Corker is quitting the Senate rather than face a tough re-election fight next year.

And even now, McConnell seems more cautious on tax reform. Even as he stood at the same podium with President Trump Monday, he seemed to push the deadline for passing tax reform into next year. McConnell even reminded the gathered news media that it took the Obama administration and the Democrat-dominated Congress until well into its second year to pass Obamacare.

Love or hate President Trump's policy agenda, he's clearly not interested in protecting the Republican Party at the expense of that agenda.

Washington is clearly not used to this. The fact that Monday's slightly awkward Trump-McConnell joint appearance even happened is the product of this strange new world for the D.C. establishment. For now, that awkward partnership on this one issue of tax reform seems to be holding. But don't bet on it going any further, especially as long as President Trump keeps focusing on achieving goals and the GOP is still focused on survival.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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