THE MORNING PLUM:
Donald Trump’s total lack of any visible ideological moorings, combined with his nonexistent sense of responsibility to others (which, disconcertingly, comes packaged with an insatiable demand for loyalty to him), has long led Republicans and conservatives to fear he would eventually sell them out when the moment seemed opportune.
Judging by the noise out there this morning, they now apparently believe that the moment is upon them. The news that President Trump struck a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a three-month debt limit raise and government funding bill has many Republicans, conservatives and reporters wondering whether this signals the start of a more systematic selling-out of GOP leaders. In certain scenarios, that could boost the hopes of Democrats and liberals on multiple fronts.
But your humble blogger strongly advises a wait-and-see attitude. On a number of big issues that really matter right now, there are no indications of any meaningful change coming on Trump’s part.
It is true, as many have pointed out, that Trump may have handed Democrats more leverage to play with in the next round of talks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), bowing to Trump’s wishes, has introduced legislation that would raise the debt limit and fund the government through mid-December, along with a Hurricane Harvey aid package. Democratic leaders had hoped to ensure that the debt limit would need to be raised again in three months to boost their leverage in coming talks, potentially to shape a longer-term spending bill to their advantage and to force a humane resolution to the standoff over the fate of the “dreamers,” among other things. Dems did win that, and in this sense, Trump does appear to have undercut GOP leaders.
But what does this signal about the long-term direction of Trump’s actual governing policies and priorities, such as they are? The New York Times speculates that this might foreshadow “a more sustained shift in strategy” in which Trump might “seek common cause” with Democrats “on areas of mutual interest.”
Okay. But let’s go through the actual issues on which this shift would have to manifest itself:
Obamacare sabotage. If anything, the administration’s sabotage of the Obamacare exchanges is only growing more determined and destructive, as this Vox rundown illustrates. Trump still won’t say whether he’ll continue the “cost-sharing subsidies” for out-of-pocket costs of lower-income customers, creating uncertainty that just helped induce another insurer to pull out of the Virginia individual market. Congressional negotiators will try to reach a deal this fall on a package to stabilize the individual markets, including appropriations to cover the cost-sharing reductions. If Trump is really moving in a new direction, he will be open to a reasonable deal and would presumably direct the administration to do more to make open enrollment a success — which would require him to willingly relinquish the weapon of sabotage he now wields. We’ll see about that.
The fate of the dreamers. Much is being made of the fact that Trump, speaking of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals dreamers, said yesterday that “Chuck and Nancy want to see something happen, and so do I.” But the question is what price Trump will try to extract for agreeing to sign some kind of legislative protection for the dreamers. Will he go through with the White House’s intended strategy of using the dreamers as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Dems, such as more funding for his wall, more money for mass deportations and cuts to legal immigration? It’s hard to imagine Trump giving too much ground, given how deeply committed he appears to an agenda shaped around full-blown xenophobia and anti-immigrant hostility. The result could be a humanitarian disaster involving hundreds of thousands of people.
After all, this is a guy who just refused to unambiguously condemn the Charlottesville white supremacists and who just pardoned Joe Arpaio (a man who systematically violated the constitutional rights of Latino immigrants and subjected inmates to all manner of abuse and torture) mainly because it made his rally crowds cheer. How likely is it that he will soften his approach to immigration in any meaningful sense?
Infrastructure spending and taxes. It is very hard to see the White House moving toward an infrastructure package that constitutes a genuine public expenditure, rather than a tax break and cronyist scheme, or giving ground on Trump’s desire to cut taxes deeply for the rich and corporations. Remember, if Trump were to do these things, he’d be acting much more in accordance with the agenda he actually campaigned on. But on these matters — taxes in particular — Trump has entirely thrown in with the very same Paul Ryanesque GOP economic orthodoxy he used as a foil for his economic populism during the campaign. For all their anger right now, GOP leaders can probably rest assured that Trump is not going to meaningfully break with them on these points.
There are all kinds of incentives for different groups to overread the significance of this moment. Democrats have an incentive to hype it because it makes Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan look like fools and might help sow dissension in congressional GOP ranks. GOP leaders have an incentive to hype it — albeit via anonymous sources — because it helps them blame their own catastrophic failings of the last six months on Trump’s ideological and personal disloyalty to the GOP cause and could allow them to retroactively blame any failings in future negotiations on him, too. Never Trumpers have an incentive to hype it because it allows them to rub the faces of Republicans who backed Trump in the manure of their own making. I would not dismiss out of hand the possibility that this moment might prove to have lasting significance, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
* GOP LEADERS ARE PUZZLED, FURIOUS: Axios sums up the sentiments among GOP leaders about Trump’s deal with Democrats:
Mitch McConnell is perplexed, with no idea what President Trump thinks he was gaining. In fact, McConnell rather doubts the president has a strategy, a source close to him tells me. … Paul Ryan is furious, according to a person very close to him.
Nobody could have predicted that Trump would be mercurial, unpredictable and an unreliable ally. Shocker!
* TRUMP’S DEAL WITH DEMS PUTS TAX REFORM IN PERIL: Politico makes some interesting points about how the deal could affect congressional Republicans’ hopes of passing tax reform:
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. … What’s more, it could give Democrats leverage over Republicans’ tax plans because the GOP will need their votes to avert a default.
Trump struck a deal to keep the government open and avoid economic calamity that might make it harder to cut taxes on the rich? No wonder GOP leaders are so angry.
* DREAMERS COULD BE A HUGE ISSUE IN 2018: CNN reports that if nothing is done to protect the dreamers, it could become a major issue in the 2018 midterm congressional elections:
There’s … a potentially majority-shifting group of Republicans up for re-election in 2018 in areas with high populations of Latino voters and places where the program remains popular. And Democrats are certain to try to make the debate over DACA as painful as possible for those Republicans. … 23 incumbent Republicans represent districts that were won in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton, who campaigned on a much more pro-immigration policy than Trump.
If nothing is done, the dreamers will lose DACA status in rolling intervals throughout 2018, and congressional Republicans will take the blame. What’s more, it would further energize the Dem base.
* TRUMP’S MIXED MESSAGES ON THE DREAMERS: A good Post editorial points out that just after scrapping DACA, Trump tweeted that he might “revisit this issue” if Congress fails to protect the dreamers, even though his own attorney general says DACA is illegal:
It is unclear just what the president intends with this pledge. If he plans to reinstate or extend DACA, on what basis will he do so, given his own attorney general’s determination that he lacks the necessary legal authority?
Perhaps concerns about DACA’s constitutionality aren’t the real reason that Trump is ending the program.
* TRUMP’S MIXED MESSAGES ON THE DREAMERS, PART II: Peter Baker adds another key point:
By vowing to “revisit this issue,” Mr. Trump arguably took Congress off the hook by seeming to suggest that if lawmakers cannot agree, they need not worry about the political or human consequences because he may take unspecified action himself to protect the younger immigrants.
It is safe to assume that Trump had no idea what he meant in substantive terms. Still, it raises an interesting question: What if Congress uses this as an excuse not to act?
* WITH TRUMP, THERE IS NOTHING BEHIND THE CURTAIN: E.J. Dionne takes a step back and looks at the larger meaning of Trump’s contradictory messages on the dreamers and many other issues:
When the input on which he bases his calculations is garbled or contradictory, he doesn’t know which way to go. Lacking any deep instincts or convictions, he tries to move in several directions at once. … In these situations, Trump offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, and we see there is nothing there. … There is no strategic vision of what a Trump administration should look like, because he doesn’t have any clear objectives of his own.
Yep. And all this is exacerbated by his near-absolute lack of interest in the details. Indeed, he often seems to be avoiding the details because they would force him to exercise genuine priorities.
* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, BANNON-VOMITS-ON-CHARLIE-ROSE EDITION: Stephen K. Bannon told Charlie Rose he opposes any action for the dreamers, prompting Rose to remind him that the Catholic Church supports them. Bannon replied:
“The Catholic Church has been terrible about this. … Unable to come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. … The Catholic bishops have an economic interest in unlimited illegal immigration.”
It is truly shocking that someone so openly hostile to immigrants would be unable to grasp the possibility that people might genuinely sympathize with the plight of immigrants.