There were a lot of shocked folks Wednesday when reports emerged that President Trump had agreed to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s proposal for a three-month raising of the debt ceiling tied to Hurricane Harvey relief instead of an 18-month proposal backed by Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and virtually anyone who a) understands how the legislative process works, and/or b) isn’t trying to humiliate congressional Republicans.
The shocked folks asked questions that went something like this: Why is Trump doing this? Doesn’t he understand this sets up a showdown in December the GOP will be hard-pressed to win? Is he going to start making deals with Democrats instead? What does this mean for the midterms? Does this prove Trump was really a Democrat at heart all along?
I ask none of those questions today, because last year I explained how to think about everything Trump does or says. There’s more at the link, but here’s the brief version of the three rules:
- First, last and always, Trump is about himself and only himself.
- Trump wakes up every day asking himself, what do I need to say or do to make sure everyone is talking about me by the end of the day?
- Trump doesn’t actually believe anything.
If you want to know why Trump would turn on Ryan, McConnell and Mnuchin in favor of Pelosi and Schumer, there’s your Rosetta stone.
Going for a three-month extension rather than an 18-month one makes no sense legislatively or politically, much less ideologically. (Oh, some supposed purists might claim this keeps alive the possibility of a smaller debt ceiling in the long run, but that’s bunk. It’ll go up by at least the same amount, just later. The time to prevent the debt ceiling from going up is before Congress appropriates more money than it has to spend.) But it makes perfect sense as long as you think about it from the standpoint of Trump’s brand.
What has hurt Trump’s brand the most so far during his presidency? Not getting major legislation passed by Republicans, and being continually attacked by Democrats for what he says and does. The former makes him take on water from the unpopular Congress. The latter restricts his popularity to whatever a steadfast group of loyalists is willing to tolerate.
So, what to do? How about showing in one fell swoop that he isn’t bound to those unpopular congressional Republicans and is willing to work with congressional Democrats. Now the part of his base that’s mad at everyone all the time can gloat about dealing a blow to Ryan and McConnell, while the part of the opposition that doesn’t think he’s actually Hitler II has to take a step back and re-evaluate whether it can get anything out of him over the next year or so by playing even a little bit nice.
If you’re Trump, this is a pretty brilliant maneuver.
If you’re Trump.
If you’re not Trump, there isn’t much to recommend this move. It means nothing good for the national debt and arguably bodes ill for it, since any future deal(s) to raise the debt ceiling will require more concessions to the free-spending Democrats. It turns off a certain number of congressional Republicans who might have worked with him to pass such priorities as health care, tax reform and the border wall (speaking of immigration, we haven’t even discussed here his apparent pre-emptive caving on DACA).
Heck, even if you are Trump, this is about as short-sighted as it gets. There’s the aforementioned complication it deals the rest of his agenda. There’s also the extreme likelihood this one acquiescence won’t actually buy him as much goodwill with Democrats as he might hope.
The best scenario for those of us who aren’t Trump is that, he being him, the agreement with Schumer and Pelosi lasts about as long as most of his other pronouncements. And maybe it stiffens Republicans’ spine to send him a clean debt-ceiling increase of 18 months and a clean Harvey relief bill, and dare him to veto either one.
But then, no sooner had I written that last sentence than this came down the tweet-pike:
So … better luck next time?