I wanted to flag to your attention this new piece by our crack Capitol Hill team of Alice Ollstein and Tierney Sneed. I’ve been telling you in recent days how President Trump had made a flat demand for border wall money or he’d toss people off Obamacare and shut down the government to boot. Later he waffled and finally pulled one of Trump’s classic whipsaw pre-fails, deciding he’d just try to get the money in the fall.
But Sneed and Ollstein get into a different aspect of the story, one unfolding simultaneously and also giving us a glimpse of where the Trump presidency may be going. Yes, Trump made his threat. Then he caved. But while threatening and caving he was here and there un-threatening and un-caving. It wasn’t just bluster followed by fail in some normal linear fashion. It was impossible to now what Trump and the White House were doing or about to do. It was and is impossible to know what was trying to do. So congressional Republicans seem simply to have stopped trying.
As of last night, they were simply negotiating a deal to keep the government open and largely ignoring the President. In a sense, Trump has brought back the actual give and take of legislating by dint of his inability to act like a grown up or even a President.
As with every new White House and administration, we see a constant effort to see who at the White House is calling the shots, who is really speaking for the President or which one of the President’s advisors is screwing things up. Who really speaks for the President out of conflicting advisors who sometimes make contradictory statements or signal lesser or greater levels of confrontation?
What seems clear with Trump is that the exercise is likely mistaken in itself. There’s no Trump viewpoint or thinking or goal to represent. There’s no actor at the center of the machine, at least not one who remains constant enough in any aim or view to matter. So there’s no point figuring our which advisor speaks for the President or represents his thinking. Because, fundamentally, there’s no thinking to represent.
We can see this in the impetuous threats. But it comes out more clearly on the field of policy. The President is now in something of a fit because he is ending his first hundred days in office with close to no legislative accomplishments. He did put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, a huge boon for conservatives. But that’s not really an accomplishment, let alone a piece of legislation. Mitch McConnell stole that seat last year. All Trump had to do was choose a name from a hat. But it’s clear – and Trump, to be fair, has told us this a lot – that Trump doesn’t really care about the substance of the legislation. He wants ‘wins’. He wants big bills passed that he can sign.
Certainly, every President wants wins. Ego can’t be disentangled from the presidential enterprsise. Every President also cuts deals and compromises – maybe a lot. But virtually every President we’ve encountered has some basic orientation. They want to cut taxes or they want to raise taxes. They want to expand Medicare or replace it with vouchers. To the degree they don’t get even into this level of policy detail they have a group of advisors they operate through with some consistency. President Trump seems fundamentally different. He just want wins – virtually anything that is doable and his constellation of advisors and supporters at the moment can count as a win.
This may seem like it dramatically opens the opportunities to pass legislation: since Trump will sign basically anything that counts as a ‘win.’ In practice, just the opposite is the case. Since the President is only concerned with wins, there is no policy agenda or policy specificity, regardless of how malleable, for legislators to grab on to or work with. If they did, it’s just as likely it might change for any number of reasons. As we’ve noted, the presidency is the centripetal force of American politics. Without that force to wrap legislative strategies around it’s very difficult to operate.
The attempt to repeal Obamacare is a case in point. President Trump ran on Obamacare being terrible because that’s what his target audience – Republicans – believed. But to the extent he had an expressed alternative in mind it was something that would provide better coverage for less money and with lower deductibles. What he ended up pushing was the almost polar opposite. But it’s clear Trump had virtually no idea and no concern with what was in the bill. He wanted a win. He’d take a win on the right of his party or the left. It’s probably not too much to say that in some alternative universe where Paul Ryan recommended single payer, he’d get behind that too. He wanted a win.
This desire for wins is the same drive that gets Trump to demand one week action on numerous major policy initiatives without coming up with even the basics of what kind of legislation to pass.
In Mike Allen’s not-Playbook this morning on Axios, he says that the point of President Trump releasing a plan this morning is to signal to the Hill that he’s going to take a much more muscular approach defining the legislative agenda to Congress. Allen quotes a “West Wing confidant” as saying:”The White House is saying to Congress: You can expect us to do this on other major policy initiatives — health care; immigration; infrastructure; and the budget, particularly defense spending. We let you drive policy on health care, and you drove off a cliff.”
Sure, maybe. But this just sounds more like blame shifting. Trump’s winning-centric approach to the Presidency has been slapdash, erratic and impossible to predict. Hill leaders seem more likely to govern around him, if not necessarily in spite of him. Because there’s simply no there there to negotiate with or to follow.