The Memo: Trump scrambles for wins


President TrumpDonald John TrumpLieu: There will be 'widespread civil unrest' if Trump fires Mueller Attorneys for Trump, Mueller hold face-to-face meeting to discuss potential interview topics: report Trump tariffs not helpful for nuclear talks, South Korea says MORE is scrambling for a win as he heads into the fall buffeted by hostile winds.

Trump badly needs a victory on tax reform after a third attempt by Congressional Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, failed.

The president suffered an additional political embarrassment on Tuesday when the candidate he endorsed, incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeMississippi is new headache for GOP in the South McDaniel makes GOP Senate challenge official in Miss. The Trump Presidency: Year One MORE (R), lost a primary runoff in Alabama.

More broadly, special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is a dark cloud on Trump’s political horizon.

And those Republicans who have long argued that he is unprepared for the job believe that their fears have been borne out, as months have passed by with little in the way of legislative accomplishments.

“He came into office, really, as a Republican in name only. He has no consistent ideology, no real policy proposals — other than building a wall, which is obviously not going to happen,” said Dan Judy, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: McCabe 'should've been allowed to finish through the weekend' For Tillerson, bucking Trump became a job-killer At least six dead after pedestrian bridge collapses on cars in Florida MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.

“As hard as Republicans in Congress tried, health care was not particularly popular and there was no kind of presidential leadership,” Judy added. “If Trump can’t get off Twitter and stop acting like a little boy, the same fate might befall tax reform.”

People have underestimated Trump’s political abilities many times before, however.

His approval ratings have ticked up somewhat since reaching a nadir last month.

His willingness to strike deals has also kept some critics wrong-footed.

His newly friendly relationship with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he has called Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerConscience protections for health-care providers should be standard Pension committee must deliver on retirement promise Dem super PAC launches ad defending Donnelly on taxes MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has delivered an agreement on the debt ceiling and a vaguer concord on immigration.

Trump is also emerging from a period when the news agenda was dominated in part by hurricane season.

His administration’s response to destruction in Texas, Louisiana and Florida won praise even from some people normally critical of him. But the deepening crisis in Puerto Rico could overshadow those efforts.

Meanwhile, on the world stage, tensions with North Korea have burst into the open with unpredictable results.

Put it all together, and it is clear why so much is resting on the push for tax reform.

On Wednesday, Trump appeared in Indiana, seeking to make his case for a plan that includes a reduction in the corporate tax rate, a simplification of the income tax code, a reduction in the top rate of income tax and an abolition of the estate tax.

If that plan were enacted, he insisted, that would spark big economic gains. Trump noted that some of the changes would not be good for him as a billionaire but that he would reap political benefits if “everything takes off like a rocket ship.”

Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist who served in President George W. Bush’s White House, said that he believes success on tax reform is “critical” for Trump.

He added, “I think it is an opportunity to get some bipartisan support. … There could be points put on the board by Democrats if they come over.” 

Blakeman suggested that moderate Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won last November would be the most amenable to appeals for bipartisanship. He cited Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate GOP: We will grow our majority in midterms CIA torture could stymie nominee An upset, yes, but a short victory lap for Democrat Lamb in Pennsylvania MORE (D-W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampBiden: Trump ‘dumbs down’ American values Power struggle threatens to sink bank legislation Overnight Finance: House threatens to freeze Senate Dodd-Frank rollback | New Russia sanctions | Trump vs. Trudeau on trade | Court tosses Obama financial adviser rule MORE (D-N.D.) as examples.

But bipartisanship is far from guaranteed. Progressives have weighed in against Trump’s plan, calling it a giveaway to the rich. Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenate tees up Yemen vote for Tuesday Sanders supporters cancel Clinton protest Congress moving to end US involvement in Yemen MORE (I-Vt.) described it in a statement as “morally repugnant.” Numerous outside liberal groups have cast it in similar terms.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said that, as a general rule for Democrats, “the best route is not opposition, the best route is compromise — otherwise they can be blamed for what does not get accomplished.”

But Sheinkopf cautioned that theory doesn’t hold if Trump proposes things that are anathema to the liberal base.

“The problem here is that the issues they are being dealt are ones where they can only provide an oppositional response,” he said of Democrats. “For them to say yes to tax reforms that benefit only the wealthy would be terrible.”

The clock is ticking for Trump.

Theoretically, a win on tax reform could open the door for further progress on issues like infrastructure spending.

But there are only about 40 days left this year on the legislative calendar. Once that’s over, many lawmakers’ attention will turn to election season and the 2018 midterms.

“We are getting so close now to the 2018 campaign cycle that the window to get anything big done is closing very rapidly,” said Judy.

The question is how much Trump can squeeze through in the time that remains.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.