Trump Just Undermined His Own Agenda on Tax Reform

With all due respect, I have to disagree with my colleague Martin’s take on what happened in the White House yesterday. To be clear, the deal is the deal. It is what we’ll be reckoning with as all of this goes forward. What we’re talking about is an attempt to understand the motivations and strategies of the various people involved. That is a secondary question. But especially when it comes to this president, it is important to get it right so that we can be prepared for his tactics in the future.

To begin, Pelosi and Schumer went into this meeting with the goal of getting funding for Harvey relief and limiting the budget and debt ceiling agreement to three months. Everyone knew their position and Speaker Ryan responded by saying it was “ridiculous” and “unworkable.” The question is, why would that be their position and why would Republicans want a longer time frame? Most people are zeroing in on how David Nir described it:

In a word, leverage—or more accurately, maintaining leverage. Right now, because the GOP is a non-functioning political party beholden to conservative radicals, it simply can’t pass critical must-pass legislation, like the spending bills that ensure the federal government keeps running. In order to keep the lights on, therefore, Republican leaders need votes from Democrats, meaning that Pelosi and Schumer hold a fat stack of bargaining chips despite being in the minority…

Harvey victims will get the help they need and Republicans will still have to come begging Democrats for votes in December to once again up the debt limit and keep the government operating.

In addition to that, Brian Faler seems to be the only one who articulated my first response to hearing this news.

President Donald Trump’s stopgap budget deal with Democrats is bad news for Republicans hoping to rewrite the tax code.

They had been planning to spend December focusing on putting the finishing touches on major tax legislation, their top priority ahead of next year’s elections.

But the agreement announced Wednesday guarantees they’ll have to also contend with raising the debt limit, always one of the toughest votes lawmakers face, as well as averting a government shutdown — not to mention a slew of other pending business.

Rather than clearing the deck for Republicans to be able to work on tax reform, the short-term extension means that they now have to contend with yet another round to deal with the budget and debt ceiling before the end of the year. That clogs up the whole business, while providing Democrats with the ability to maintain their leverage. That is precisely why the Republicans were trying to bargain for a longer time horizon—they wanted to get these two things off their plates for at least a year and be able to move on to the one big thing they all want to accomplish…tax cuts. Andrew Prokop explains how raising the debt ceiling is particularly problematic for Republicans and why this three month extension puts the brakes on their agenda.

All this ugliness is why Ryan and McConnell wanted a debt ceiling increase that would last through the 2018 elections. They wanted the debt ceiling issue off their plates so they could move on to other issues, like tax reform, which they hoped to pass by the end of the year.

Instead, though, this deal all but ensures the December legislative calendar will be dominated by a painful showdown over the debt ceiling and government funding.

All of that raises the question of why Trump would agree to this deal, given that he is so intent on passing tax reform. The first thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to this president, we have to throw out the playbook that has been developed to explain political strategy. We’ve had a year and a half to observe how he operates and now is one of those times when we can bring that to bear.

The words that have most often been used to describe Trump are “impulsive,” “narcissistic,” and “domineering.” Do those words fit with someone who set up a strategy over the past few weeks to appeal to his base in order to cover for a capitulation yesterday? I would say that is highly doubtful.

What we’ve witnessed from Trump recently is that he is obviously angry at McConnell. They have sparred pretty openly lately. It isn’t as clear how he feels about Ryan. But what we know from the Speaker is that he is pretty adept at playing the weasel to get what he wants. If that means sucking up to the president, I wouldn’t put it past him.

We already know that Trump is willing to humiliate people when he feels threatened—even people that he needs as allies. Lately his jabs have been targeted more often at Republicans than Democrats. The mantra that he is feeding off of right now is to blame Congress for everything (which means blaming Republican leadership). Yesterday was the culmination of that. Josh Marshall, who has always had particularly good insights on this president, explains why Trump was willing to shiv the GOP.

Donald Trump’s core drive is dominance. We see that in his politics which is revanchist and destructive and in its less dire manifestations driven by a zero sum vision of human and economic relations. For me to win, you have to lose. The more fluid and collaborative aspects of human interaction seem entirely lost on Trump. This is why he is the leader of the revanchist, racist far right.

But the political or ideological manifestations are secondary to the personal one. Trump needs to dominate people. Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available.

This is precisely why, when attempting to understand and/or predict Trump’s behavior, we have to throw out the old rule book on how politicians behave. As E.J. Dionne suggests, when it comes to actual policy and strategy, there is nothing there behind the curtain. Similarly, Dana Milbank writes that “nobody knows what Trump is doing. Not even Trump.” All of that explains this paragraph that was buried deep in the New York Times article about his decision to rescind DACA:

As late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind, according to a person familiar with their thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity without authorization to comment on it.

Over the years, Trump has bragged about relying on his “gut,” or instincts. He doesn’t read, doesn’t care about policy, and isn’t particularly attached to ideology. He certainly doesn’t have the patience to map out a strategy. His assumption that everything is about dominating or being dominated lends itself to the politics of resentment, which is what makes him appealing to so many of his supporters. At the moment, that need to dominate and find a target for his resentments is focused on Republican congressional leaders. It clouds everything else, and it is doubtful that he can even comprehend how it affects the tax cut agenda he’s been working on. But Trump is also impulsive. So it is difficult to gauge how long this particular grievance will last.

The reason it has taken me so long to describe all this is that this kind of behavior is not normal—for a politician, or even a human being. The only way to understand what Trump is doing is to pay attention and watch for the patterns. Those have become more clear over time. Whenever his actions seem baffling, it is helpful to put them in the context of the patterns we have already observed.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.