"Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," Donald Trump proclaimed in accepting the Republican presidential nomination. Given that we are at the first anniversary of Trump's swearing-in, citing his inaugural address might seem more apt. But the quote from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland does more to explain how we arrived at the unprecedented moment in which a president governing with two houses of Congress controlled by his party finds himself presiding over a government shutdown.
I alone can fix it. There are two ways of reading this slightly ambiguous sentence. First, in the way that Trump presumably meant it, that he is the one uniquely capable of fixing what is broken in Washington and politics. Second, that he could fix it alone, that is, without allies and alliances. Either of these meanings is false, dangerously so, and each has helped to land us in the present mess.
Far from being the exclusive savior of his imagining, President Trump is exceptionally ill-suited to the task of fixing our fractured politics. He has no perspective, no patience and no knowledge of what that might take. The art of the possible is different from the art of the deal, even assuming Trump deserves the credit he has awarded himself for being a canny businessman. You need to understand how Washington functions to make it more functional.
In this sense, it was instructive that the self-proclaimed drainer of the Washington swamp recently discovered that eliminating earmarks, the very essence of swampiness, might have made deal-cutting more difficult. Surprise! Governing is more complicated than Campaign Trail Trump ever acknowledged or, more likely, understood.
Indeed, if anything, Trump's galumphing intervention in the run-up to shutdown made a solution less, not more, likely. He was for a "dreamer" deal before he was against it; he was with Chuck and Nancy, and later Dick and Lindsey, before others intervened. He shifts positions with every bite of his cheeseburger. Fellow Republicans, even his own aides, speak of him with ill-disguised exasperation and disdain, as about a slow student expending minimal effort. Thus Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), on Wednesday: "I'm looking for something that President Trump supports, and he's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign. As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I will be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels."
McConnell's petulance underscores the second flaw suggested by Trump's acceptance speech assertion: Very little in Washington can be fixed alone or unilaterally. However imperial the presidency may be, it sits within a constitutional framework of separated powers. The role of a president anticipating a potential shutdown is, or should be, to guide his own party in finding a solution, and to craft — not blow up — an agreement with the opposition.
This is where some Republicans' original theory of the Trump presidency — we'll just pass legislation and ship it down the street for him to sign — was misguided. The paradox of governing is that the president cannot do it by himself, but also that the system cannot function effectively without presidential leadership, least of all in a situation of unified government. He alone can't do it, but he also can't do it alone.
Hence the current spectacle. Perhaps, hopefully, it will be short-lived. If it is not, confident predictions about who will bear the blame, and more important, suffer the wrath of voters in November, strike me as premature: Who knows? How can we know, never before having been in this remarkable situation: ineffective single-party governance.
In previous shutdown showdowns, voters, to the extent they have kept the event in mind and inflicted punishment, have tended to side with the president over a recalcitrant, dysfunctional Congress. The president controls the bully pulpit. So in this instance, maybe Democrats will pay a price for insisting that a dreamer/Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals fix be included in the spending deal. In tort law, there is a doctrine of "last clear chance," in which even a negligent plaintiff (in this case, Republicans) can collect damages against a defendant (in this case, Democrats) who had the final opportunity to prevent the harm.
Or, perhaps, voters will blame Republicans for being the gang that couldn't govern straight, even when they held both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. Or, most likely, in the current outrage-a-day overload environment, it will all seem like ancient history come November.
But we would do well to keep in mind the chasm between Trump's boastful convention assertion and the sorry reality of shuttered government. Did he believe himself back then? Does he continue to even now? The majority of us have learned better, if we did not know the complicated truth all along.
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