• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Democrat For A Day

September 2017

As goes the saying, the bumpkin can be taken out of the country, but the country can’t be taken out of the bumpkin. At least south of the Mason-Dixon it goes something like that. Much the same can be said about President Trump: he can take himself out of the Democratic Party, but it appears to be the case that the Democratic Party pulls stubbornly at him from within. This was made clear on Wednesday, after bicameral negotiations with House and Senate leaders ended with an unexpected result.

President Trump gathered together Democratic Senate and House minority leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) with the leaders of his Republican Party. Amongst the latter were House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Vice President Michael Pence, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The seven met in the Oval Office to open their discussions about the nation’s impending fiscal crisis. The purpose of the meeting was to address the year’s pressing and quickly forthcoming economic issues—issues like raising the debt ceiling, enacting a continuing resolution for government funding, and relief payments for Hurricane Harvey victims along the Gulf Coast.

For starters, there’s the debt ceiling. It’s that irksome, intermittent little reminder that our federal government’s expenditures far exceed its income. It’s that mirror in which we see our own homegrown prodigality and, turning from it, shrug. Raising the ceiling allows for the further accrual of debt. More importantly, it lets us go on as we were, never seriously facing the risks of a chronically thriftless state. If the ceiling were to drop, or if Congress simply neglected to have it raised, the consequences would be severe. For one, it wouldn’t be feasible for us to service our outstanding debt and for another, we wouldn’t be able to maintain our national solvency. Our financial repute in the eyes of foreign markets and sovereign governments would take a hit and there’d be economic hell to pay.

And, ceteris paribus as those dealers in the dismal science might say, the U.S. government’s stellar credit rating would receive an unsightly chink. AAA to B, or B to C, either way, it wouldn’t be good. This would damage the high regard with which many a foreign nation holds our trust. A way around this, of course, would be to cut spending and appropriate these “savings” toward servicing that burdensome debt. But that’s no fun, and that’s no way to win votes.

The way in which a politician approaches the debt ceiling reveals a lot about him. It gives light not only to his political disposition, but his ideological bent as well. Fiscal conservatives, like those who count themselves among the niche Freedom Caucus membership, are quick to reject raising the debt ceiling without meaningful spending cuts on the other end. Economically speaking, this is the only sensible approach, but not one that’s politically palatable. Indeed, this marks the point where ideology and policy tend to diverge.

Democrats, for their part, are rather less concerned with debt and spending so long as neither one takes a dip. Reliably, it’s this starting point from which they approach economic negotiations, but negotiations only bode well for he who has the upper hand. Being the minority party in every branch of government, this wasn’t a luxury they could claim.

As such, Republicans were right to feel sanguine about their prospects going into Wednesday’s meeting. From an outsider’s perspective, the thought was that the Republicans would set the stage and run the table. The GOP, which controls for the nonce all three branches of government, was expected to use its weight to push the Democrats toward favorable terms. For their part, the Republicans wanted an eighteen-month debt limit increase, and were willing only to begin negotiating down from that starting point.

Why eighteen months, you might ask? A year and a half seems an arbitrary timeline, but as I mentioned, the debt ceiling can be a contentious political issue. Inevitably, it’s used as a cudgel with which one side can beat the other. Prolonging the debt ceiling to eighteen months would remove the issue from upcoming mid-term elections and obviate what’s sure to be a headache particularly on the right.

Aside from the debt ceiling, a bill proposal for Hurricane Harvey relief funding was also on the docket. Republicans were largely split on this matter. Men like Steve Mnuchin and Texas Senator John Cornyn advocated for a Harvey relief bill tied to the debt ceiling package. Cornyn understandably had a vested interest to see to this end, but with his thinking, many in his party agreed. However, there was a minority in the GOP, including Paul Ryan, who called Cornyn’s proposal “ridiculous” and advocated instead for a clean Harvey relief bill independent of the debt ceiling. The prevailing opinion was that by pairing the two, the proposal was more likely to pass in Congress. Ultimately, it became an expedient to which most Republicans were willing to hitch their wagons.

Either way, while some within the party differed on the particulars, President Trump and the Republicans clearly had their agenda set and wore the upper hand going into the day. Had Schumer and Pelosi been hesitant to embrace a prolonged debt ceiling increase with Harvey relief attached (which was, ultimately, the generally accepted Republican plan), they would have appeared unmoved by Texas’ plight. McConnell and Ryan could have squeezed them on this point. They could’ve made the Democrats appear willing to forsake thousands of ravaged Texans in order to achieve short-term, partisan success.

However, in a turn of events that still has pundits scratching their heads, none of this came to be. President Trump, perhaps unaware of his upper hand or perhaps driven by some other more inscrutable motivations, promptly jumped ship. He dismissed his party’s position and conceded to Schumer and Pelosi’s demands. It’s been reported that Trump interrupted Mnuchin mid-sentence, while his Treasury Secretary was proposing an eighteen-month debt ceiling extension, in order to agree to the three-month debt ceiling increase proposed by Schumer. The president, in so doing, completely undercut the man whose main task it is to negotiate these fickle monetary details.

For the Democrats, Trump’s drastic shift to their side was unexpected, but not unexceptionable. It was a pivot few had anticipated, fewer still had thought possible, but it was one to which none could object. Having rather effortlessly won the president to their side, Schumer and Pelosi were aglow after the meeting. Their party’s position was dramatically strengthened as these next three months leading up to December’s resumed negotiations get underway. Conceivably, when that time does come, Democratic leaders can expect to extract even more concessions from Trump in light of how easy it was to do so this first time around. This isn’t to assume Trump will blindly follow wherever it is he’s led, but at the least it shows him to be amenable, maybe even biddable, in following their demands.

Upon exiting the meeting, President Trump was equally cheerful; he affirmed that “everyone was happy” with the day’s resolution. Everyone in the Democratic Party, that is. Mitch McConnell and Mark Meadow’s consternation was palpable when the two were asked to comment about the deal. Responding to the implications of Trump’s dash to the left, Meadows—the congressman and Freedom Caucus member from North Carolina—soberly foreshadowed a situation in which there would be “no way the president will be negotiating from a position of strength” with the Democrats come December. McConnell, in effect, said much the same.

The news programs that Trump ostensibly loathes were quick to celebrate the deal. This is no small thing. At long last, Trump received the adulation from those of whom he’s so desperately sought it. He got the love of the elites, the cheers from the liberals, the plaudits from the pundits. Maybe it’s this that gets to the heart of his unexpected defection to the left. At the end of the day, the president is human (perhaps all too human), and he seeks the adoration and the love of others. This doesn’t count out those upon whom he’s wont to heap scorn. By siding with the Democrats, it was love that he received at the cost of a bad deal. So long as the heart’s warmed, it’s no sin to be a Democrat for a day.

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