What if Donald Trump ends up getting what he wanted all along by turning the tables on the Republicans in Congress?
There was a brief but vivid Covfefe moment this week when Trump struck a deal with the Democrats to rid himself of the fiscal showdown threat. Republicans and conservative pundits basically couldn’t think of anything to say as Trump celebrated his new BFFs “Nancy” and “Chuck.” Nancy and Chuck, for their part, put a pretty good face on it, but clearly had quite as little to say as the Republicans. The mainstream media, outmaneuvered, couldn’t come up with any rapid-reaction spin, and decided to focus on Harvey and Irma instead.
The deal with the Democrats knocked the entire “DACA cruelty” theme somewhere out into the Delta Quadrant. One minute, the theme occupied every soundbite; the next minute, it was gone without a trace.
But the deal with the Democrats doesn’t look like it will function solely as a stopgap to fend off the looming fiscal showdown. Nor was it probably a mere tactic on Trump’s part to deflect blowback from the DACA decision.
If the early signs are a guide, the change in negotiating dynamics wrought by Trump’s unexpected deal may be just what he needs to get congressional Republicans to show some backbone on immigration enforcement.
The pre-deal calculus was not propitious. Trump seemed to face the prospect of setting a six-month deadline for a congressional DACA fix, but then having to rely on the same Republicans who couldn’t repeal Obamacare to beat the deadline with comprehensive legislation.
The legislation, of course, has to boost enforcement. Everybody on planet earth knows by now that the voters will just keep punishing whoever they have to, to get actual immigration enforcement and border security prioritized. The reason Trump was elected; the reason weak-enforcement legislation can never get passed; one of the top handful of reasons the voters have been kicking Democrats out of office over the last decade – it’s all because the voters, in fact, want our immigration laws enforced. They’re not kidding about this.
But it was pretty clear two days ago that the congressional Republicans weren’t going to carry the water on it. Even aside from the DACA meme-surge, Paul Ryan has been considered an immigration “squish” by the Trump base for years now. Few are left who place much faith in promises from Mitch McConnell either.
With DACA, however, Trump had something he didn’t have with Obamacare. He had an executive action available to him, one that the Democrats think they have an urgent reason to do something about. And he didn’t have to rely on the Hill Republicans to put it in play. He could do it himself.
Now, with the DACA clock ticking, the Democrats have an incentive to participate in a legislative solution – something they don’t have with Obamacare.
And by cutting a deal to neutralize the fiscal showdown leverage they might have had, Trump has both cleared the path for his longer-term priorities – a sustainable immigration posture, tax reform – and shifted the incentive matrix for the Republicans.
If Trump can cut deals with the Democrats, then it will be recalcitrant Republicans dragging their heels against his agenda – not the Democrats. That, at least, is how it will appear.
But more importantly, the mechanics of the process will have changed. This is what you don’t want to miss. Before the fiscal deal with the Democrats, Trump was stuck waiting for the GOP majority on the Hill to start something. Manifestly, they couldn’t do it, at least not on the big issues that really matter. They’re literally afraid to legislate.
But now the thing is started. Now the Hill Republicans can just do what they know how to do: declare the price of their participation in somebody else’s process.
And presto. Suddenly Paul Ryan is an immigration enforcement hawk. If he didn’t see that as defying Trump and a potential DACA deal with the Democrats, he might never have gotten to such a categorical position on the matter. But if he and the other congressional leaders see a Trump-Democrats deal as getting done – instead of the whole process leading to deadlock – they have an incentive to get the best they can out of it.
And, hey, if Trump’s going to take the heat with his base for giving DACA recipients amnesty, that’s a bullet Congress doesn’t have to take. The Hill Republicans can be the heroes who insist on enforcement.
It’s not like Trump will fail to back them on that. He ran on that point; he knows it’s what his voters want. But by turning the tables, he has reset the Republicans’ fear/opposition matrix. They have the conditions they need to push for what Trump wanted in the first place: immigration enforcement and border security, as the price of a solution for the DACA recipients.
Who knows? He may even get his wall at some point. None of this is about Trump being smarter than you or me, or vice versa. But anyone who still thinks he knows for sure what’s coming next – including what will happen with that wall – really doesn’t get it yet.