It will be quite a while before we see clearly all the fallout from President Trump’s unusual move on Wednesday.
No one knows quite what to make of it. Basically, instead of allowing himself to be dangled for weeks with the threat of a fiscal showdown, he cut a deal with the congressional Democrats to increase the federal debt ceiling, fund the government through December, and provide $8 billion in emergency dollars to the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
Republicans are understandably upset about this. It’s not just that Trump went over their heads. He ignored concerns that are central to Republican priorities; chiefly, some fig-leaf of fiscal continence, and the primacy of proper budgeting as a means of exercising congress’ constitutional powers in the political process. Whatever the pitstops and detours, the fiscal brinkmanship episodes of the recent past have always been ultimately trying to cycle back to those touchstones.
The Fox panel during Bret Baier’s Special Report this evening looked shell-shocked trying to talk about it: four people with pained expressions blurting out random comments, trying to get the wheels started again behind their thousand-yard stares.
Yet the power and negotiating dynamics are easy enough to discern. Trump has been in the Oval Office long enough now to take the measure of the Republicans on the Hill. If he left them to their devices, he would be whipsawed from now to November 2018 by a long series of voting failures. For anything to get done at all, he’d be dependent on some Gang of 8 arrangement in the Senate.
And in that case, he wouldn’t get what he wanted; he’d get what John McCain and Lindsey Graham want.
What incentive does Trump have to keep backing the Hill Republicans’ play under those conditions – if, that is, he wants to get anything done? What value does he get out of waiting for the Senate Republicans to negotiate deals with the Democrats? Why not just do it himself? Can he really do worse?
It is no excuse for Trump’s own shortcomings, but it does have some explanatory value, to point out that McCain and Graham behaved pretty fecklessly in the last couple of weeks. At a time when they could have been focused on the relief Americans need from a crazed government juggernaut, we instead got an op-ed from Senator McCain in which his main point to Trump was, “You’re not the boss of me!”
Graham, meanwhile, has spent recent days explaining that Trump is handling DACA the wrong way, but Congress can’t do anything about DACA without Trump’s help ramming it through. Slice it however you will; that’s the opposite of persuasive power talk.
The interesting thing about these bags of complaints and alibis is that to so many Washington hands, the irritable excuses sound normal and justified. The president who wants to get past them and get done what he promised to do is, in their eyes, the wild-eyed interloper.
Trump, of course, does nothing to tamp down his appearance of being wild-eyed. That doesn’t help things.
But it’s a mistake to think that if we had just elected some other Republican, all would be well at this point. It wouldn’t. The Senate Republicans would still have failed to repeal Obamacare. Anything done about DACA would be depicted as epically cruel by the mainstream media and the Democrats, and would have the congressional GOP quaking in its boots, unable to use its majority for anything useful (e.g., a truly “comprehensive” bill package that included real border security). There would still be a looming collision with the debt ceiling, a budget impasse, and a timing issue that portended yet another round of brinkmanship and a mass collapse of Republican spines.
All of those conditions would still obtain, because their cause is the Republicans in Congress.
The difference in this case is that Trump decided to just cut that set of predictable do-loops off at the pass.
I’m not saying he did the right thing by making this particular peremptory move. As regards the immediate elements of the deal – debt ceiling, continuing resolution, Harvey assistance – we’ll see. Absent a complete breakdown of general conditions over the next four months, things will presumably be fine.
The real consequences are the less immediate ones that will be felt down the road. If you want a date for when the Republican Party blew up, this is it. Trump could have chosen to live with whatever the Republicans in Congress were going to hand him for the foreseeable future – but he didn’t. This is a profound break with how business has been done in Washington for a long, long time, and it’s not really possible to foresee everything it’s going to set in motion.
There will be a tendency for pundits to focus on the likely reaction from Hill Republicans; i.e., resentment and unwillingness to work with Trump. I don’t think the reactionary posture is actually going to differ that much from the pre-6 September posture, which has never been agile or cooperative (at least not in the Senate).
But the real bottom line is that there are no clear “winners” and no dead men walking here. The Democrats aren’t in a position to capitalize on this turn of events. They are in disarray themselves, without the means to drive an agenda. The Republicans can’t drive an agenda against Trump. And Trump clearly can’t count on the Republican majority to get things done; he has to do his own horse-trading with the Democrats if he wants to press for his agenda.
Maybe Hill Republicans will be able to stymie Trump in such a way that he can’t get anything done by negotiating with the Democrats. But that is the worst possible stance to adopt with an election looming in 2018. At least, it is if the GOP wants be relevant and get its candidates elected to office.
So, the profound, republic-shaking questions. What is the Grand Old Party going to be? And how deep-seated is the commitment of ordinary Americans to the longstanding way of doing business in Washington, with the conventions that attend party control of the branches of government dictating all the outcomes?
Regarding the GOP’s identity crisis, I seriously would not bet against the insurgent base’s ability to define it away from the old-consensus legacy represented by most of today’s Republican senators. The voters have frankly had it with a bait-and-switch party. We won’t know until next year whether a rash of primary challenges can reinvigorate the Republican brand. But unless we’re hit by the sweet meteor of death, we can count on seeing those challenges.
I don’t have any sense that a reset for the GOP will involve movement in a scary direction. The voters who are the most disgusted with the party are the ones who simply want government to do what it’s supposed to do more effectively, and get off their backs as regards all the things government has no business doing. Their view of constitutional government remains quintessentially American, largely unchanged from the Reagan years.
That, at least, is how things are right now. But as with the fractured Democratic Party, with its radicalizing “Bernie” wing, we’re stepping out, starting 7 September, into uncharted territory.
This, I see as the more potentially tectonic movement going on. What if a President Trump spends the next 18 months, or four years, negotiating deals with the Democrats? Suppose there isn’t enough sentiment among voters in 2018 to send new Republicans to Congress who can think outside the old-consensus box and get things done through cooperating with Trump. Suppose it takes longer than that, or the sentiment never generates at all.
This wouldn’t be a case of a Republican president having to negotiate with a Democratic majority in the Congress, or vice versa. It would be a case of dividing the parties – both of them – according to willingness to act, as opposed to obstructing action.
Perhaps that would be in the hope of waiting for different conditions down the road. But how long would that policy of suspense be sustainable as a party talking point?
Would the collapse of party discipline, as a factor in governing, come to erase our old habits and expectations about what the discipline is for?
And if that happens, how do we reconcile those developments with a Constitution that has invariably required settling back to two major parties, each unified, to be executable?
Will the American people sit by for a sea change in how their government works if it amounts to the tail wagging the dog?
Make no mistake, as the old POTUS-in-Chief used to say. Eventually, someone was going to have to do what Trump did today. The reason it was Trump is that he didn’t come in with a lifetime investment in the GOP, or political loyalties that supersede his commitment to his “shareholders,” the voters. Unlike a Democratic president, Trump doesn’t have a whole power network of revolving-door perennials to plug into in Washington. The Republicans in D.C. are hangers-on, and Trump himself is an outsider. When neither party is committed to delivering for him, he either makes abrupt moves or he becomes irrelevant.
Today, he chose the abrupt move that was made necessary by long-building conditions. His focus is short-term: on a governing agenda over the next 3 to 7 years. There’s no evidence he has a larger vision or a longer horizon.
But what if he makes it work, at least to some extent? The move itself will set things in motion that may not resolve themselves for 100 years. Fasten your seatbelts. This could be a bumpy ride.