Revenge is one of the powerful unspoken temptations of public office.
For incoming presidents, the urge to punish often involves diminishing the historical legacies of their predecessors.
Ronald Reagan took revenge on Jimmy Carter by gutting renewable and clean energy policies. Fuel efficiency standards were rolled back, renewable energy research and development funding was slashed and the wind power investment tax credit was eliminated. Reagan even had the solar panels on the roof of the White House taken down.
Richard Nixon took revenge on John F. Kennedy by cancelling the remaining missions of the Apollo Program. What might have been the exciting first chapter in opening a new American frontier on the Moon was reduced to an expensive ‘plant the flag’ stunt.
Donald Trump now has the opportunity to take comparable revenge on Barack Obama, the object of envious fascination not only for the president elect but also for other Republican politicians.
The political problem for Trump and the Congressional Republicans lies in choosing which of the historical legacies of Barack Obama to target. Restoring the bust of Winston Churchill to the White House or hinting creepily about returning to official sadism at Guantánamo Bay will not be enough. Obamacare and the Iran Nuclear Deal were Obama’s signature accomplishments and the most obvious targets… but attacking either will be costly.
Repealing the Affordable Care Act would please Republican politicians and voters but perhaps not as much as replacing OR failing to replace it would displease them. Any replacement that is more than symbolic is likely to be alienate all those angry rustbelt white working class voters who handed the GOP a unified government. They didn’t vote for Trump because they wanted to be more responsible for their own lives. They voted for him because he promised them they would not fall further behind economically and would not have to reconcile themselves to a more diverse America, as symbolized by the outgoing president. Whether it is repealing without replacing or repealing and replacing, the Republicans endanger their majority on the U.S. House of Representatives come the 2018 midterm elections.
Junking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would please Republican politicians and voters as much as it would displease Russia. Threatening Iran plays well with the Christian Zionists in the GOP but not with Moscow. Iran is an important Russian client, and Russia is one of the few major powers that Trump is unwilling to alienate. POTUS 45 is so circumspect with respect to Russia that there is increasingly little doubt that the Kremlin possesses compromising material with which to blackmail him. Would Congressional Republicans really want the American public to see a Republican president veto new sanctions legislation on the orders of Vladimir Putin?
Complicating calculations about which part of the Obama legacy to target is the time horizon. The most obvious ‘known unknown’ about the 45th President of the United States is whether he will serve out his full term as president. We can imagine him staggering and tweeting his way through the next four years as the least legitimate president to ever hold the office. We can imagine him driven from office within months of his inauguration because the distrust and shame are too much even for the opportunists who have agreed to serve in his administration. We simply do not know. Congressional Republicans have given no reason to believe that they possess the sort of patriotic spirit that would be necessary to impeach and try one of their own, even one who conspired to win office with covert action by a rival great power. If the equivocation wrapped in bluster expressed by Sen. John McCain on CNN on January 17th is any indication, some Congressional Republicans might prefer dealing with a wounded Trump to any alternative.
Taking revenge on Obama would be expensive for the Republicans. Failing to take revenge on Obama would be agonizing. They suffer as William Shakespeare portrays John Clifford suffering in Henry VI, Part 3.
The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.
The rest of America and the rest of the world is now a hostage audience, watching Republicans twist and turn in unsatisfied political vengeance. What we do know is that we will pay too high a price for the tragedy.