E.J. Dionne: Trump is too powerless to fix the roads

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listens as Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington • The late Steve LaTourette came into Congress as part of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 conservative revolution. The Ohio Republican was a party loyalist but not an ideologue. He thought that government ought to do such revolutionary things as build roads and bridges. So when I asked him why he decided to quit Congress in 2012, he had a ready answer: “Because we couldn’t even pass a highway bill anymore.”

LaTourette, who died in 2016, was part of an informal group sometimes known as “Building Trades Republicans,” a band that believed constructing stuff and paying construction workers well were good ideas. He was also on the Appropriations Committee, and appropriators have historically embraced a give-and-take with Democrats to finance projects both sides could brag about. LaTourette really liked infrastructure.

I thought of him last week when President Trump blew up his meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The gathering was supposed to be the follow-up to their earlier “agreement” on a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. You need those scare quotes because Trump was obviously not ready to agree on anything.

The headline writers were not wrong to focus on Trump’s ridiculous declarations that as long as House Democrats try to hold him accountable (i.e., do their jobs), he would stop governing with them. Period. Pout, pout. Never mind that — unless he wants the entire government to collapse around him — Trump will eventually have to deal with Democrats to pass a budget and his U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade accord.

But Trump's theatrics were also very convenient because they disguised that he cannot now, or ever, deliver on his signature promise to create a "great" infrastructure program. This is why Trump "infrastructure weeks" have become a standing joke in Washington. LaTourette was right: The Republican Party is no longer interested in spending public money to solve big problems if doing so gets in the way of cutting taxes.

He explained this in his rough-and-ready way back in 2011 when he called the 2010 tea party class of Republicans "knuckledraggers that came in in the last election that hate taxes."

One of those newcomers was Mick Mulvaney, now Trump's acting chief of staff and budget director. From the moment Trump, Pelosi and Schumer announced their convergence on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan last month, Mulvaney began sabotaging it. "Is it difficult to pass any infrastructure bill in this environment, let alone a $2 trillion one, in this environment? Absolutely," Mulvaney said.

He was far from alone because the entire Republican leadership in Congress is now part of the Knuckledraggers Caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly signaled he had absolutely no interest in a big infrastructure plan if it required rolling back any part of the GOP's 2017 corporate tax cut.

Democrats argue that since business is clamoring for infrastructure, it would make sense to ask business to foot part of the bill. They have suggested raising the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from the 21 percent enshrined in the 2017 law, and pulling back on some of its other provisions.

No way, say the Republicans. A "non-starter," declared McConnell. Faced with the choice of bridges collapsing in a heap or reigning in the tax giveaways, the bridges don't have much of a chance.

Note that the meeting Trump sabotaged was about how to finance the plan. He had no way of coming up with anything constructive because, for all his bravado, he is totally under the thumb of Congress' conservative ideologues. His tantrum was part of the cover-up no one is talking about: The emperor has no money.

This fact underscores a widespread misunderstanding about our politics. "Normal" Republicans are regularly described as privately horrified with Trump. Trump is said to have engaged in "a hostile takeover" of the GOP.

In fact, it's Trump who has been taken over. He campaigned as a different kind of Republican, and his infrastructure promise was a major component of his anti-ideological image. But on all the things the ideologues and right-wing business interests care about — tax cuts, corporatist judges, deregulation — Trump caves in.

We know the president's boast that he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters." Perhaps Republicans in Congress wouldn't go that far. Otherwise, they'll keep standing with him as long as he prostrates himself before their tax-cutting god, even if this means showing he is too weak and powerless to fix the roads.

E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.