In September 2015, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said, while voting against then-President Barack Obama's agreement with Iran to trade sanctions relief for inspections of Tehran's nuclear program, "This isn't just a bad deal—it's a disastrous deal and it enables Iran to become far more dangerous….We have to judge this deal on the long-term national security interests of the United States. Does it make the region and the world more safe, secure, and stable? In my judgment, clearly it does not."
Two years later, Royce was singing a much different tune: "As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it."
What changed? Royce will tell you that "the toothpaste is out of the tube" in terms of Iran receiving its previously locked assets, but I would gently suggest an alternative theory: Donald Trump became president and sought to actually deliver (at least in part) on the promise that a then-unanimous GOP caucus felt perfectly safe to issue back when a Democrat slept in the White House. What's more, the president did so in such a way that explicitly kicks the issue back to Congress.
This has become something of a pattern. Trump, who campaigned as the guy who would actually go through with the things Republicans had half-heartedly promised for decades (Move the Israel embassy to Jerusalem! Get those illegals to self-deport! Withdraw from gutless international institutions! Threaten North Korea with extinction!), has in recent weeks repeatedly used such actions as a way to call the Beltway GOP's own bluff.
Take Trump's elimination of the Obama administration's cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies to health insurance companies. It was congressional Republicans who filed the lawsuit against Obama's constitutionally adventurous attempt to appropriate money without the legislative branch's consent, but once it became clear that Trump was serious (if belatedly so) about following that logic to its conclusion, suddenly the Mitch McConnells of the world began squawking about federal relief for insurance companies. The president's response to Congress: Don't like it? Fix it!
The Democrats ObamaCare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped. Dems should call me to fix!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2017
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have since come up with a bipartisan plan, and the president's response so far has been mixed, but the pattern still holds: Congressional Republicans demand X of Obama, freak out when Trump threatens to deliver X after campaigning on X, then he kicks the issue back to Congress, where it in fact belongs. The eventual policy result may disappoint, and there's a crudeness to the president's negotiating style, but the process reflects a healthier respect for separation of powers than Trump is generally given credit for.
Do we have another example to make this an official Rule of Three? Sure: the Obama administration's 2012 Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA.
In September 2014, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) slammed DACA as "blatantly unconstitutional." By September 2017, he was urging President Trump not to scrap it. "I actually don't think he should do that," Ryan said. "I believe that this is something that Congress has to fix."
And in fact, Trump has not scrapped DACA—yet. He has given Congress until March to fix it. If Republicans and Democrats were to somehow come together and codify DACA into legislation (probably with a big pile of immigration-enforcement measures), the thing would be much more constitutionally sound. Again, the results may well end up bad, and there's something unseemly about using the fate of children as a negotiating ploy, but President Trump is devolving authority to the legislative branch in the service of calling Republicans' bluff.
The bad news is that many of the GOP's underlying ideas, or at least the policies they claimed to care about, are not sound. One wonders, when watching Republicans flinch in the face of their politics veering dangerously close to policy, whether it's nothing more than the instinctual recoil of Dr. Frankenstein encountering his own monster.