People frequently ask me to explain what’s going on in Washington, because every day is a jumble of bad news. Whether it’s the tweets from the president, the battles between Democrats and Republicans in Congress or the allegations of campaign misconduct, seemingly every report contributes to unhappiness and general disgust with the political process. I try to make it simpler by referring to them as the three R’s.
The first R is for “relevant.” President Trump has done such a good job of stepping on his own toes that it’s impossible to predict what he will do or say next. His daily contradictions confuse everyone, and his incessant battles with the press have reduced him to the size of a statuette. What Trump is learning is what Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton learned during their presidencies about how presidents do or do not stay relevant.
Carter was handicapped by one misfortune after another. Some of his closest confidantes got into criminal trouble, and the antics of his brother Billy made him almost invisible. Month after month, Carter had to remind the outside world that he was still the president and was owed the loyalty of the country.
Clinton, in 1995, found himself eclipsed by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose Contract with America clouded the president’s message. It seemed that the House of Representatives had a very specific agenda, and Clinton looked bewildered in his efforts to be thought of as the commander in chief. At one of his news conferences, he stated, “I am still relevant and the Constitution makes me relevant.”
President Trump’s challenge, after he finishes his overseas trip, will be to give people a reason to take him seriously on anything he says. The conflicting statements from him and his media staff are driving everyone crazy. His original spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, has been assigned to other duties because the television networks don’t want her on as a guest anymore. Sean Spicer is a household name now, thanks in no small part to Melissa McCarthy, but he’s taking a lot of flak in the White House and may disappear very soon into the West Wing basement.
In the weeks ahead, the president will be bombarded by daily leaks from every intelligence agency that he has insulted. The drip, drip, drip may make him retreat into hiding, and no doubt by July 1 the world may wonder whether Trump is still relevant as a leader.
The second R stands for Russia. No matter how many times the subject comes up, the president bashes it as fake news. The charges that his campaign staff colluded with Russia were answered at the outset with, “It didn’t happen,” and now Trump says, “Others may have done it, but not me.” Whether or not you want to believe that Russia was involved in our election, it doesn’t matter. The investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, has become a criminal one.
The third R is for “reluctant.” You can count on your fingers the number of Republican members of Congress who have been willing to criticize Trump. One member described his actions as too “dramatic.” A few say the president is being “distracted” from accomplishing anything while in office. But to their shame, no one has told him directly, in so many words, that it’s time to grow up and do the job.
Why are Republican senators and House members so reluctant to criticize their own leader? One reason is that Republicans live and die as a unit. Internally, they may hate one another, but they’re sticking together so they can kill Obamacare and pass a package of big tax cuts for the rich. Health care and tax cuts are tied together because the savings realized by harming poor people will be translated into big dollars for the very wealthy.
So it’s really quite simple. When anyone asks you what in the world is going on in the nation’s capital, just recite the three R’s.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.