The normally sober Associated Press is reporting the Senate’s vote to overturn Trump’s declaration of emergency in the southern border as ‘a stunning rebuke’ and ‘a remarkable break between Trump and Senate Republicans.’ But it isn’t.
The 12 Senate Republicans who joined forces with every Democrat in the vote to annul Trump’s declaration did so for predictable ideological reasons. Libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Pat Toomey voted to overturn the emergency on ‘constitutionalist’ grounds, seeing the National Emergencies Act of 1976 as constitutionally dubious or worse and rejecting the mechanism by which it allows the president to appropriate funds.
Most of the rest of the Republicans voting to put a stop to the president’s declaration represented the party’s establishment wing — the likes of Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski on the party’s left or Rob Portman, Roy Blunt, and Lamar Alexander in its dying center. Mitt Romney’s vote with this group isn’t a surprise: he’s set out since his election last November to be every liberal’s favorite Republican and a champion of the NeverTrump cause. Marco Rubio, who still courts the right, nonetheless voted the way his rather liberal record on immigration would have suggested.
In short, this vote expressed old divisions in the GOP, not a sudden turn against President Trump. The important thing to note is that these divisions are persistent — there remain libertarian/constitutionalist, moderate/establishment, and basically neoconservative factions in the party. Together with the Democrats they still can’t stop Trump’s emergency declaration: a two-thirds majority in both chambers would be needed to overturn Trump’s inevitable veto of the cancellation bill, and a veto-proof majority isn’t available in either the House or the Senate, let alone both.
Trump remains the strongest force in the GOP, and this vote doesn’t suggest he’s losing ground, even if the defection of Jerry Moran or Tom Wicker on this vote wasn’t a forgone conclusion the way Rand Paul’s or Susan Collins’s was. Ben Sasse, a Republican who talks a lot about his principles and independence, didn’t break with the president, and neither did Ted Cruz, who keeps close track of how the right is moving. If a revolt were really underway, they would have been part of it.
The trouble for Trump’s agenda lies in the future: whenever he leaves office, who will lead his coalition? His mix of immigration restrictionism, trade protectionism, and foreign-policy restraint is accepted by congressional Republicans, but few of them seem as committed to it as the smaller factions are to their alternative positions. Yet those smaller factions have their own limitations — the establishment Republicans are not replenishing their ranks, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, and the constitutionalists may have had their ‘libertarian moment’ five or ten years ago, when the Tea Party was the expression of the populist right and Rand Paul seemed poised to be a top-tier 2016 contender.
The perseverance and ideological focus of the constitutionalists with the right-wing visceral appeal of Trump would make for a formidable combination. Either alone, however, leaves the GOP’s future in question — a return to establishment Republicanism or neoconservatism 1.0 seems implausible, but a drift into inertia is all too likely if there’s not more to Trumpism than Trump. The obstacle for those who want to see something like Trump’s agenda prevail isn’t the handful of Republicans who openly oppose it, but the large number who only passively support it.