Making Political Analysis Easy

What did I say?

President Donald Trump on Friday delivered a message to congressional Republicans, essentially telling them their inaction led him to cut a deal with Democrats this week.

What else did I say?

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told the Washington Post that Trump made the debt ceiling deal with Democrats in order “to move on to big-ticket items” like tax reform. Ross cited the short congressional schedule in September as a reason for getting the debt ceiling settled.

And, again, didn’t I make this point repeatedly, too?

Trump also used the Senate’s rules to justify his decision to strike a deal that led Senate leaders to attach a three-month debt ceiling suspension and three-month government-funding bill to a Hurricane Harvey relief bill and send it to the House…

….He called the Senate’s legislative 60-vote threshold a “Repub Death Wish!” The president wrote the rule will “never allow the Republicans to pass even great legislation. 8 Dems control – will rarely get 60 (vs. 51) votes.”

Hence, his decision to cut a deal with Schumer to punt major decisions on the federal borrowing limit and government spending until early December.

And, as if it isn’t already clear:

In my first reaction to the deal before the narrative about the debt ceiling kicked in, I said that the Republicans did well because “it should be much easier now to work on reauthorizations for Defense and the FAA, CHIP and flood insurance programs, and perhaps even to do a little work on the budget.”

That last bit about doing “a little work on the budget” was a stand-in for “get going on tax reform.” That’s because, as I’ve explained, the Republicans cannot use reconciliation rules to pass tax cuts without worrying about the filibuster unless they first pass a new budget. In taking fights over disaster relief, a government shutdown and a credit default off the table, the president gave the Republicans more legislative days to work on a budget. Here’s what I said yesterday about that aspect of the deal:

Schumer and Pelosi look like genius negotiators. And, it’s true, they did very well. But they actually got no more than they were due. In return for their support, they made no concessions and got pretty much nothing else in return. Their one bonus was the short 90-day duration of the deal, because that will allow them to torment the Republicans all over again in December. But they also did the Republicans a big favor by getting them out of a huge jam and giving them back a bunch of legislative days that they can now use to create mischief. In any case, they had needs when they want into the meeting, and those needs were met.

I understand if your default setting is to disbelieve everything that the president and his cabinet members say, but sometimes they’re giving you the straight dope.

They had to make a deal with the Democrats because the Republicans cannot muster the votes on their own, without significant Democratic support, to pay our bills and keep the government operating. As long as the filibuster is in place, this will make it impossible to ram home the vast majority of their agenda. There was way too much on the Republicans’ plate for September, and what was getting left behind was work on the budget which is a prerequisite for doing a tax cut that doesn’t take the Democrats into account.

Whether or not Trump wanted to humiliate or dominate Ryan and McConnell, his basic decisions were made for him. They were made for him because he took some actions and failed to take others that would have allowed to him to shape his circumstances. He was operating in a fantasy land for as long as he could, but he eventually came up against hard deadlines and the realization that Ryan and McConnell had sold him a bill of goods.

A smarter, savvier president would have been able to see this coming way before now. He would have surrounded himself with experienced advisors and listened to them. He would have worked to shape the battlefield in his favor rather than blindly walking into a trap.

But I think it’s a mistake to look at a man in a trap and put more weight on their quirks of personality than on the design of the trap. If there are only a couple of ways to escape, they’re going to pursue one of those plans.

My only question with Trump was whether anyone would ever be able to get him to understand his predicament and his real choices before it is was so late in the game that we defaulted despite his best efforts. Fortunately, he figured it out before we got to that point.

When, exactly, did he realize that he’d had to make this pivot?

My guess is that it was a process that began after Obamacare repeal finally failed in early August and that continued in fits and starts throughout last month. Hurricane Harvey opened up new and unexpected avenues to exploit, which he was quick to understand. The hurricane also provided a lifeline to Ryan and McConnell because it gave them a way to cave on the debt ceiling and a clean CR without inviting a real revolt from their caucuses which are filled with people who were still harboring delusions about what they could get by playing Russian roulette.

To be honest, psychological analysis is an important tool, but an unreliable one. It’s never easier to predict what people will do than when they have to act and have very few options. I could not tell you what the hell Trump was going to do in June and July, but it was a lot easier to predict his actions in September. I knew his options would be narrowed and the possibility of further procrastination would be gone.

Ryan and McConnell should be grateful to Trump right now because he got them out of a jam and gave them time to work on tax reform. Instead, they’re complaining about the debt ceiling. And that’s the same debt ceiling that true conservatives are never supposed to raise, let alone for eighteen months, without getting big cuts in entitlements and non-defense discretionary spending. That just shows how bankrupt conservative rhetoric really is, and they wonder why the president didn’t take their side?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.