So President Trump calls the leadership of the Republicans and Democrats into the Oval Office today for a meeting about what to do about the debt ceiling and funding the government, and he promptly does something that Washington should’ve expected, but didn’t because they’re locked in to bad conventional wisdom: he overruled his aides to side with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. The pivot is real, and it’s spectacular.
“Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned. Trump had quickly sided with Democrats on a short-term debt ceiling increase, even overruling his own Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to concur with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he later called them on Air Force One.
“But Trump defied more than his top aides. He turned on Republican leaders in Congress when he caved to Democrats’ demands to raise the debt limit and fund the government for three months, setting up a brutal year-end fiscal cliff. The move shocked everyone, as top White House officials and GOP leaders had been gearing up to raise the debt ceiling through the 2018 midterm election, looking to pass legislation as soon as Friday.
“But even after Mnuchin, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back on the Democratic demands in the meeting, Trump agreed to the three-month deal that will also head off the possibility of a government shutdown until mid-December.
“During the meeting, Ryan sharply criticized the Democratic proposal, a source familiar with the exchange said. But Schumer reminded him that Ryan had supported short-term increases in the past intended to help create bipartisan deals in 2013.
“So after Democrats rejected GOP proposals to raise the debt ceiling for 18 months, and then six months — Trump endorsed Schumer’s three-month pitch. That means Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling, negotiate a massive trillion-dollar spending bill, and potentially hash out a deal on immigration all at once.
“Democrats were gleeful.”
And well they should be! It may be that this is the first sign Trump is himself waking up to the inaccuracy of the conventional wisdom about “needing McConnell and Ryan” which has animated so much of the early failures of the Republican legislative agenda. So he’s being more honest: he doesn’t like McConnell and Ryan, never did. He likes Chuck Schumer, and knows him, and thinks he can work with him. And he knows Chuck always makes money for his partners.
Back in May, I wrote that Trump would be better off doing exactly this:
“So what would that pivot look like? It begins with doing the same thing that he did all the time during the presidential campaign: running against Washington and refusing to even pretend to be a traditional Republican. He can start by calling Capitol Hill Republicans into the Oval Office and demand answers on health care, on tax reform, on why they have been so incapable of advancing an agenda even with united government and years of preparation. He can even publicly attack them – why should he care about crossing Hill Republicans at this point? Hill Republicans had six months to repeal Obamacare and get moving on tax reform, and they’re not up to the job. (Sad!)”
If it was true in May, it’s even more true today: there is zero downside for Trump taking sides against feckless Republicans who have failed to deliver on their promises to him or to their voters, who lag him consistently in the polls, and who are clearly being blamed more than the president for failing to deliver on their agenda. See this recent CNN poll: “Consider this: In January, 75% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approved of their party’s congressional leadership. Now? Just 39% approve, according to a new CNN poll. That bears repeating: Less than four in 10 REPUBLICANS approve of the job REPUBLICAN congressional leaders are doing.”
As I wrote in a recent edition of The Transom: The truth is that Trump doesn’t need McConnell. What would he need him for? Every Republican wants tax reform. Yesterday some reporters were warning darkly about the debt limit or the budget. Who do you think is more worried about the consequences of a shutdown, Trump or McConnell? And if, come December, Congress has failed to send health care, tax reform, the wall, infrastructure, had a short shutdown, and Trump and McConnell are blaming each other for the failure, who does the media think will win that fight with GOP voters? It won’t even be close.
Now, personal animosity may play a key role here. But the importance of this moment is that the Democratic ask was on its face ridiculous. They themselves probably didn’t even take it seriously – it wasn’t so much a Hail Mary as a pass that you tried to throw out of bounds to stop the clock, but got caught instead. And the results of this decision by Trump will throw the whole end of year schedule into amazing chaos.
What could be included in the December measure? Cromnibus, debt limit increase, more money for victims of Harvey and Irma, flood insurance, opioid money, transportation stimulus, and perhaps even a clean DACA Christmas present? Dream big!
As preposterous as this is, it’s also a glimpse of how the “pivot” to the center would work. Trump siding against GOP leaders and seeing them bend over illustrates how he could get them to do this on just about everything. The path of least resistance, the path of popularity for him, is to dismiss the demands of Congressional Republicans on virtually everything except abortion, judges, education, free speech, and regulations. In almost every other way, he has the opportunity to govern like Bill Clinton and triangulate a path through this screwed up political system. He’s that much stronger than congressional Republicans, and he doesn’t even seem to know it.
Trump followed up on this meeting by inviting Heidi Heitkamp to hitch a ride with him on Air Force One. He invited her on stage in North Dakota, and spoke of her as a “good woman.” The president may not be able to sustain this pivot business. Of course he won’t. But maybe, if he could, we’d see more choices like this. If only we could be there for the moment when Trump says, “Chuck, Nancy, you’ve got a deal. Now, Ivanka, come tell Paul and Mitch about your family leave and child tax credit ideas?”