Friday, September 8, 2017

What we are learning about Trump from the debt ceiling deal

There are a few things to note about Trump's approach to the debt ceiling and his deal with Congress, some of which may be surprising, and some of which should simply be reminders of what we already knew.

1)  Trump was never a full "tea partier."  Trump won the nomination in 2016 by trying to appeal to the people we used to call the "tea party."  He was, after all, the leader of the "birther" movement for years, and the tea party was largely a reaction to Obama personally rather than a movement built around any specific policy.  In the 2012 American National Election Studies Survey, we asked respondents about whether they supported or opposed the "tea party," and whether or not they thought Obama was born in the US.  Among those who "strongly opposed" the tea party, 83.2% said that Obama was "definitely" born in the US.  Among those who "strongly supported" the tea party, that figure was only 12.5%.  The tea party was also the force in Congress behind opposing debt ceiling increases.  As always, you can play around with the data yourselves here.  Trump was always about the "identity politics," not the policy, though.  He never had any coherent understanding of policy or ideology.  So, should we really be surprised that he shows no fidelity to tea party ideology on non-racial policy?  No.

2)  Throughout the primary and general election campaigns, one of the themes that many of us political scientists addressed was that figuring out how to talk about Trump's ideology was difficult.  With former Members of Congress, we have their voting records.  That gives us cool things like NOMINATE scores, computed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, and available at  Clinton was a Senator, and her voting record showed her to be pretty far left, as one would expect.  Trump?  As I kept pointing out throughout the campaign, you could put together a record of past statements that made him look left of Sanders.  Why?  He's incoherent.  He doesn't know anything, or believe in anything other than his own greatness.  He'll take whatever position is convenient at the time.  That makes placing him on a left-right spectrum impossible.  That's what worried the conservative "neverTrumpers," and, well, here we are.

3)  One of Trump's distinguishing characteristics is that he is highly erratic.  That's a bad thing for someone with ultimate say over the disposition of our nukes.  Frankly, I was quite worried about what it implied for the disposition of our debt ceiling.  The thing about being erratic, though, is that an erratic person will sometimes stumble on being right.  If you decide what to do by guessing randomly, your chances may suck, but you might guess right.  On the debt ceiling, this wasn't guesswork.  Trump's advisors did their job, and Trump actually listened to them.  And then... he went further and... talked sense.  Trump is now advocating eliminating the debt ceiling entirely.  Even Obama wasn't pushing that.  Granted, once debt ceiling showdowns started for him, he was facing a GOP Congress that he knew wouldn't do it, so he may just not have bothered, and Trump probably can't get it done for that very same reason, but...  Trump is right.  (Damn, I still hate typing that.)  The debt ceiling is objectively stupid.  Every single aspect of fiscal policy would be better if we got rid of it, and nobody has ever made an even remotely logical argument in defense of keeping it.  Every argument in its defense boils down to something about how it serves as some sort of reminder about debt.  Yeah, like we need one of those, 'cuz nobody would ever talk about national debt without those debt ceiling crises...  Yeah, fuckin' bullshit.  The reason it doesn't happen is that the same cowards who are afraid to vote to raise the debt ceiling are afraid to vote to eliminate it.  For the same reason.  It just sounds bad because people don't understand what the debt ceiling is.  By now, Trump probably does.  And doesn't want to deal with this shit anymore.  The erratic guy has stumbled on the right answer.  With erratic people, that can happen.

4)  Republicans are now reminded of why they should never have trusted Trump.  Realistically, he kind of saved them from a disaster.  A debt ceiling breach is a bad thing.  They probably could have finalized a deal, but this way, they definitely have three months to work out the next one.  Why?  Trump got bored and lazy, and took an easier deal, but Trump did stab Ryan and McConnell in the backs, and he doesn't want to play Republican games with the debt ceiling.  On policy, this wasn't a big deal.  The process is the important thing.  Trump is a backstabber.  What, did you forget that?  Who ever trusts this fuckin' guy?  Oh, right, those fuckin' idiot yokels who attended "Trump University"...

5)  That's a lesson for the Democrats too.  There are plenty of reports about how Trump was basking in positive media coverage of the deal (because the only thing that matters to Trump is media coverage), demonstrating that if Trump really wants "wins," the solution is simple.  Work with the Democrats.  In the history of Congress, there have been a few great Speakers of the House.  Reed, if you know your history.  Cannon is a tough one, given that he got sacked in 1910 in one of the more famous incidents in congressional history.  Pelosi didn't change the institution of the House to the same degree, so she can't really be compared to, say, Reed, but in terms of brutal effectiveness, holy shit, was she up there.  Pelosi is, in my opinion, the smartest legislative leader in modern history.  At least as good as LBJ, whose legend is overblown.  She can deliver.  If Trump wants to get stuff done, he could just continue to throw the GOP overboard and work with the Democrats.  However, that would require the Democrats to trust him.  See 4.  As in, C4.  Get it?  That's a strategy that will blow up in the Democrats' faces when Trump stabs them in the back.  Frog and scorpion-- it's in his nature.

6)  The real obstacle to 5 is the Russia investigation.  Trump blew up at McConnell and the rest of the GOP congressional leadership because he didn't think they were protecting him from Mueller and the Russia investigation.  Do you really think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will protect him from Mueller?  Nope.  Trump working with the Democrats?  It can't last.

The basic lesson from all of this is that we can never know what Trump will do in any one situation.  Every once in a while, he may stumble on the right thing.  If he can actually pull off a total repeal of the debt ceiling... I will call that a major legislative accomplishment, as well as a courageous and praiseworthy course of action by Trump.  I'll hate doing it, but I'll do it.  Still, the real lesson is that you can never predict what an erratic person will do.  That's why you don't trust them.


  1. #3: let's not give Trump or his minions that much credit.

    The debt limit is always a problem for the current president. Asking for a 7.5 year extension is kinda transparent, and pisses everyone off. So, if Trump want to avoid the shitshow that is himself, he asks for the repeal. He didn't randomly stumble into the right position so much as have no compunction about asking for what's best for him. I would expect that he might do the same on anything else that's purely good for the president.

    1. I'm not going to claim that his motives are altruistic, but credit where credit is due. He is doing something that is a) right, and b) no previous president has had the courage/chutzpah to try. The line between courage and chutzpah has never been clearly defined anyway.