Saturday, September 09, 2017

Is Trump Finally Pivoting? Understanding the Deal with the Democrats


President Trump struck a deal with Congressional Democrats to suspend the debt ceiling and pay for Harvey relief. Speaker Ryan, Senate Leader McConnell, and almost all of Trump's advisors wanted an 18 month debt ceiling suspension, which would expire after the 2018 elections. Instead, Trump ignored them and struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Does this mean that Trump is finally going to pivot to the center and become a bipartisan deal maker? Is he is finally going to reveal himself as a pragmatic centrist or even a New York City liberal? Is he is going to start appointing centrist judges? Is he is going to stop dismantling as many Obama-era regulations as he can find?

No, no, no, and no.

Trump is a demagogue and an opportunist without any settled ideology other than a desire for self-promotion, wealth, and power. He sees that he has been losing about a percentage point in popularity each month, and is now down to about 37 or 38 percent approval ratings. He also sees that responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey is widely popular. It makes him look as if he cares about people. It also gets him favorable press, which he craves, no matter what he says about fake news and the mainstream media being the enemy of the people. He also knows, or rather he suspects, that the Republicans will have difficulty passing a 18 month debt suspension on their own, because of problems with the Freedom Caucus and various showboating Senators.

The Democrats offer him a deal that may boost his approval ratings, gets him positive press, makes him unpredictable (which he likes), and pushes off difficult issues for three months. He also knows that more disaster relief requests will soon be popping up, and putting himself on the side of disaster relief is a winner.

So he takes the deal and stops the decline in his approval ratings. Maybe at the margins some of the attacks on him get less loud and strident. Maybe some Democrats are confused. Maybe some media commentators are awestruck and willing to give him a second look. Above all, striking this deal distracts attention from a very unpopular Republican policy agenda-- reducing entitlements and lowering taxes on the wealthy.

At the same time, Trump continues doing what he already has been doing-- dismantling regulations, appointing Federalist Society/Heritage Foundation-vetted judges, and throwing the occasional slab of red meat to his populist base, who continue to adore him.

What's not to like?

It's true that at some point Trump will have to decide whether to sign a legislative solution to DACA, which could alienate his base. But he also knows that it is very uncertain whether Congress can craft a compromise, pass it, and put it on his desk for his signature. If Congress can't pass a DACA fix that helps the Dreamers, fine. He blames Congress and his base is still mollified. If Congress can come up with a deal, he refuses to sign it unless it is combined with symbolic funding for his border wall, and then he sells the compromise to his base as a great deal: The Dreamer's are really "good immigrants," so we should let them stay, and the new border wall will keep the "bad immigrants" out.

Again, what's not to like?

The key thing to remember is that Trump doesn't really care about ideological purity. He does care about his personal popularity. He does care about his base, but they trust him, and are likely to interpret any deal he makes favorably as long as he tells them a story about how he is looking out for them. He can continue to make a few deals with Democrats while still doing pretty much what he has been doing for the first seven months of his presidency-- slash regulations, stock the courts with very conservative judges, and tweet outrageous things.

If Republicans don't like it, they have the tools to stop him-- even to remove him and replace him with Mike Pence. But they haven't used any of these tools, because they want his signature on a very big tax cut for their wealthy donor class, and frankly, they really like the deregulation and the judicial appointments.  On the other hand, if Congressional Republicans can't pass a big tax cut for their donors, Trump will seem far less useful to them than, say, Mike Pence, who would appoint exactly the same judges, and slash exactly the same regulations.

Then things could get quite complicated, with no certain endgame.

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