The Ticking Clock and the Ensuing Blame Game

As we start to write this the clock on The Washington Post’s internet front page is showing 23 hours and 51 minutes and 21 seconds left to avert a government shutdown, although it’s already down a few seconds more by now and time will be even shorter when you read this. There’s still plenty of time left to avert the worst possible outcome, which probably wouldn’t even be all that bad, but at this point we can’t see things turning out very well.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives managed to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through February 16, but the chances of the Republican-controlled Senate passing a similar continuing resolution look bleak. The Republicans control the House by a sizable enough margin that they could afford to lose a few votes from some hard-liners on spending on immigration and other matters, and they even picked up a few stray Democratic votes with peculiar local politics. In the Senate the Republicans now have a razor-thin 51-to-49 margin thanks to the recent electoral debacle in Alabama, and the absence of Arizona Sen. John McCain due to health problems has sharpened that edge, and except for one senator from President Donald Trump-loving West Virginia none of the Democrats have any political incentive to help the Republican-controlled congress and the Republican president from averting the embarrassment of a government shutdown.
Even if the Republicans are willing to offer the kinds of concessions that would outrage their core voters and somehow get something passed on the Senate side, it would all have to be worked out in a conference committee, which takes some doing, and as we write this The Washington Post’s doomsday clock has ticked down to 23 hours, 29 minutes and 10 seconds. Even if everyone talked as fast as those guys who read the side effects disclaimers on the pharmaceutical advertisements and something got passed by both chambers, it still has to be signed by Trump, who is the wild card in everything these days.
These all-too-frequent continuing resolution debates are threat of always complicated, but this time it involves complicated questions about immigration policy and health care, and of course Trump also complicates things further. The Democrats want the continuing resolution to continue protections for illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and can now prove their good citizenship, and the that’s polling so well the Republicans are largely willing to go along if they also stricter border enforcement from now on, which also polls well. Meanwhile there’s another deadline looming to reauthorize the Child Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to the children of families too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid yet too poor to pay for private sector health insurance, and although it polls so well it’s always had bipartisan support the Republicans failed to meet a previous deadline for its reauthorization and the Democrats thus have a huge bargaining chip.
In a televised and much-discussed meeting with a bipartisan gathering of senators earlier in the week Trump promised to sign whatever they came up with regarding immigration, but he quickly backtracked to insist that what every they came up with would have to include funding for a big, beautiful wall along the Mexican border and various other strict border enforcement efforts, and that he was still willing to hold those upstanding illegal immigrants brought here as children hostage to get it. Then he was angrily denying his Chief of Staff’s comments to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a cable news network that Trump’s views on the big, beautiful wall and other border issues had “evolved” since his campaign days. Then Trump “tweeted” that he didn’t like the reauthorization of the CHIP program in Republican bills, staking out ground to the left of both the Republicans and Democrats by insisting it should be permanently reauthorized rather temporarily reprieved by a continuing resolution on spending.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preemptively blaming the Democrats for a government showdown on Thursday, as Republican senate majority leaders are obliged to do, but he also frankly acknowledged to the press that “We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” and with a politely bowdlerized nod to a recent presidential comment that has even further complicated the immigration debate he added, “This has turned into an s-show for no good reason.” McConnell is not only hated by all the Democrats, as all Republican senate majority leaders are, he’s also hated by that large swath of the Republican party that has the Grand Old Party’s establishment, but we think he has a valid point.
We’ll also give due credit to the equally-loathed-by-both-sides Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan for corralling enough of his herd of mavericks and enough stray Democrats to get something to pass in the House, and although he’s carefully avoided any public criticisms he can’t give much credit to Trump. If the government does shut down and those upstanding illegal immigrants start getting deported and whole bunch of kids lose their health insurance in 22 hours and 37 minutes and 33 seconds, as The Washington Post times it, it’s likely that at least a majority of the hated Republican establishment will have voted to avert it.
Our guess is that won’t make much difference in the opinion polls, among Democrats or a large swath of the Republican party or any of those self-described independents. The Republicans control both chambers of Congress and in a certain sense the White House, and those arcane rules about a sixty-vote majority being needed in the Senate and all the nuances of immigration and health care are far too complicated for most folks to consider, so the Republicans will probably wind up shouldering their usual blame for all these all too frequent government shutdown. The Republicans will divide themselves between those who blame the mercurial Trump or that set-in-stone Republican establishment, and the Democrats will unite in their indignation with both.
The good news for everybody is that government shutdowns aren’t so awful as they sound, and that if this one happens it will likely be short-lived. Sooner or later both that hard-nosed if out-of-his-water negotiator Trump and those more hep-to-the-game but lily-livered Republican establishment types will once again government operations and give all sorts of concessions to the Democrats, including several that poll so well that a savvy party would have been on board all along, and if it doesn’t include a border wall that was a stupid and badly polling idea all along.
The bad news for everyone is that the best we can expect is yet another continuing resolution to keep the government somehow afloat through February 16, with the same motley assortment of Democrats and Republicans that Trump guy all reviving all the same noisome arguments. Once upon a time in America the two chambers of America’s congress used to pass annual budgets, presidents would sign, some longer term agreements were also agreed upon, and the nation’s businesses and taxpayers and our foreign allies and adversaries could plan accordingly, and for the most part it worked out well.
That all broke down long before Trump took office, so we can’t blame him for that, but with 22 hours and 10 minutes and nine seconds remaining on The Washington Post’s doomsday clocked neither he nor that hated Republican establishment nor any of those damned Democrats deserve any credit for fixing it.

– Bud Norman

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Back when he started to woo evangelical Christian voters President Donald Trump liked to boast that the pastor at the Presbyterian Church he had attended as a child was Norman Vincent Peale, saying “You could listen to him all day long,” but it never seemed clear what lessons he had learned from the sermons. Peale was better known as the author of the famously best-selling self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking,,” and it does seem clear from Trump’s recent battles with his own party’s congressional leadership that he learned all the wrong lessons from that tome.
Trump escalated his ongoing war of words with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday with another series of “tweets.” He criticized both for rejecting his advice to attach a controversial debt ceiling increase to a popular Veterans’ Administration reform bill that recently passed with bipartisan support, claiming “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” A short time later he once again “tweeted” that McConnell was solely to blame for the Senate’s failure to pass an unpopular bill to repeal and replace the formerly unpopular Obamacare law. That came shortly after Trump had quite clearly criticized both Senators from Arizona in front of a raucous campaign rally crowd, even as he complimented himself for being so presidential as to not mention either man’s name, which followed several insulting “tweets” aimed at various other Republican congressmen who had criticized Trump’s response to the deadly violence that followed a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
No matter how much Trump positively thinks nones ¬†of which seems likely to win him any new friends or influence anyone who isn’t already a die-hard supporter.
The idea that something as controversial as a debt ceiling increase could be easily snuck into a VA bill without anyone noticing, or everyone in both parties raising a fuss that would sink even such a popular and important piece of legislation, suggests to anyone at least vaguely familiar with the legislative process that the Senate majority leader and the House Speaker know a lot more about it than does the relatively neophyte president. McConnell does indeed bear much of the blame for the Republicans’ failure to get that unpopular health care reform bill passed, but there’s enough blame to spread around that fiasco that some of it surely falls on a Republican president who had run on a campaign promise that on the first day he’d repeal Obamacare and replace it with his beautiful but not very specific plan that would cover everyone and lower costs and it would be easy for your head will spin, and Trump would do well not to give his many critics another chance to mention that. Trump’s attempts to spread around the blame for the deadly violence that occurred at a white supremacist rally have not played well with the general public thus far, and he’d be wise not to drag that out any longer.
All of which seems to complicate some already darned complicated negotiations regarding that debt ceiling increase, along with a continuing spending resolution and various other matters that must be dealt with prior to some very hard deadlines looming in the near future in order to avert all sorts of political and economic disasters. Many congressional Republicans won their seats on the promise of ending the federal government’s endless borrowing and doing so without tax increases by drastically cutting spending, others ran on the same basic principles but with a begrudging acknowledgement that it would take some time and a lot of compromises on continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases all the rest of that nonsense, and Trump exponentially complicates that internecine Republican complicatedness.
Trump became the Republican president with the usual Republican promises of low taxes and balanced budgets, but also some proudly anti-Republican promises of not touching the big entitlement programs that are driving the debt and adding at least a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending, as well as his assurances that he’d done enough big real estate deals that it would be easily achieved. We’ve never been in on any big real estate deals, but we’ve been watching how Congress works a lot longer than Trump seems to have done, so we’re skeptical that can keep all those promises and won’t further complicate things.
He added even more complications during that raucous rally in Phoenix, where he hinted he’d rather force a partial government shutdown than sign any continuing spending resolution that doesn’t include full funding for his campaign promise of a tall and formidable border wall stretching across the entire border with Mexico, which he now promises will also be translucent so you can see what those wily Mexicans are up to. During the campaign Trump routing led his die-hard supporters in a chant that Mexico will pay for the wall, as president he’s threatening that he’d cause a partial government shutdown and perhaps even a federal default if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t pay for it with taxpayer funds, and we can’t imagine of the Democratic minority wanting to help him out.
From our Republican perspective out here on the prairie it seems that Trump is less interested in averting political and economic catastrophes than in making sure he once again doesn’t get blamed for them by his most die-hard supporters. McConnell and Ryan and the rest of the Republican party are easy enough targets, we must admit, so there’s a certain self-interested reason for those insulting “tweets.” As pillars of the Republican establishment they’re already reviled by the entirety of the Democratic party, and they do indeed shoulder a share of the blame for the Grand Old Party’s recent failures to make good on the opportunity of its recent political dominance, and the talk radio talkers and most of their grassroots listeners have bitched and moaned out long enough that Trump got nominated and even more improbably elected on the promise to burn the down the establishment.
At the time we wondered how Trump’s mostly-reluctant 46 percent share of the popular presidential vote was going to prevail against the combined might of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as all the economic and civic and academic and religious institutions that comprise the much-maligned establishment, and thought that “burn it down” was a peculiar rallying cry for conservatism, and at this point we’re hoping that some semblance of the pragmatic Republicanism we always voted for will somehow prevail. At this point that means rooting for the likes of McConnell and Ryan and against Trump and his and ridiculous border wall idea, and hoping there are still enough sensible Democrats to join with averting the looming political and economic disasters, but so be it.
For all their failures both McConnell and Ryan still strike us as more serious men than Trump, and we’re heartened they don’t seem at all influenced by Trump’s “tweets.” Ryan did his best to ignore Trump’s “tweeting” on Thursday, and instead had an impressive “town hall” appearance at a Boeing factory in the Seattle area, where he made a clear case for the Boeing-friendly corporate tax reforms that both he and Trump are working for. Some of the questioners questioned Ryan’s support for de-funding the Export-Import Bank that Boeing has taken generous advantage of, and he gave a very detailed explanation about how other reforms he’s pursuing would leave the company just as well advantaged, and we can’t imagine Trump giving a better answer. One Boeing employee asked a rather frank question about how he was dealing with Trump’s latest public pronouncements, which she seemed to find troubling, and Ryan deftly replied “It’s a day-by-day deal,” adding “I am kind of joking.”
We can’t find any press reports of questions about Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which aren’t likely to benefit Boeing’s largely export-driven business, and although Ryan is far more a traditional Republican free-trader than we suspect they were both glad of that. At this point we’re liking the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to burn down than we’re liking Trump, but we can’t say that give us a hopeful feeling.
Even a partial government shutdown would be a political disaster that can’t plausibly be blamed on that darned Democratic minority, a federal default would be a catastrophic global economic disaster that makes everyone in the American body politic culpable, so surely some sort of desultory-to-all-sides deal will eventually be struck, We’d feel a whole lot more hopeful, though, if any of the players seemed more interested in averting the looming catastrophe than avoiding any blame for it.

— Bud Norman

The Latest Contretemps and the Coming Deadlines

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s response to the deadly violence that ensued from a white supremacist rally in Virginia over the weekend continued on Wednesday. Several more Republican congress members announced their objections to Trump’s statements, and the Fox News network reported that it couldn’t find any who were willing to speak on camera in the president’s defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that was clearly an implicit rebuke of their Commander in Chief’s comments, and several administration officials were anxiously leaking that they had nothing to do with any of it. Also, the mayor of Phoenix asked Trump to cancel an upcoming rally in the city, and Trump had to shutter two advisory panels comprised of the nation’s top business executives and labor leaders rather than accept the mass protest resignations that were soon coming.
Sooner or later the news will move on to something else, including fresh twists on the old stories about “Russia” and White House in-fighting and the Republicans’ stalled agenda of unpopular legislation, but Trump will wade into all of them as a weakened president. The opprobrium of everyone from the leaders of the Democratic and Republican party to the nation’s top military brass to the chief executive officer of Campbell’s Soup will only shore up Trump’s “anti-establishment” credentials with his most stubborn base of support, but although they’re still numerous enough to fill an arena in Phoenix he’s going to need more help than that to start winning.
That stalled agenda of unpopular Republican legislations was already stalled and unpopular largely because of Trump’s low poll numbers, which are lower than any previous presidents’ had been at this point in a first term, and its hard to see how Trump’s past few days will win any new supporters. Trump’s past feuds with his party’s congressional leadership and his own cabinet members and the military’s top brass and the economy’s most successful executives were also largely responsible for the Republican agenda being both stalled and unpopular, which is what’s mostly driving those low poll numbers, and heightening the hostilities seems a questionable strategy.
An unpopular and defiantly anti-establshment president is going to have muster some some pretty ubermensch-ian will to power to prevail against the established order and the popular consensus that sustains it in the more consequential stories that are bound to soon come. The world is at least a troubled place as ever, with more than usual number of hot spots that have lately been forgotten, and it’s worth noting that many of our democratic allies Trump had already been feuding with also stated their objections to his statements on that white supremacist rally in Virginia. The Republicans’ stalled and unpopular agenda is coming up against some very hard deadlines next month, too, and some unifying presidential leadership is going to needed to avert all sorts of catastrophes.
By the end of September the Congress needs to pass some sort of convoluted continuing resolution or some such congressional gobbledygook to keep the government open for business, as well as yet another debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, lest the government suspend many services and perhaps even default on its debt. Both Trump and the more usual sorts of Republicans ran on a promise of a return to good old days of budgets bills that went through committee and got passed by both chambers of congress and were signed into law by the president, as well as promises of a quickly balanced budget, but at this point they’re highly unlikely to keep those promises right away, and even that convoluted continuing resolution and another round of borrowing is going to be hard to achieve.
The mild political consequences of a partial government shutdown and the far more dire economic ones of a default on the national debt give every Republican member of Congress some leverage in the upcoming negotiations on that convoluted continuing resolution, none of the Democratic members will have motive to offer the majority party any help, and Trump’s reputation as a master deal will be tested more severely than it was in any of his real estate or casino negotiations. When Trump’s casinos went bankrupt he came out many millions ahead while his creditors lost collective billions, and during the campaign he temporarily roiled the world’s markets by suggesting that American could win with the same methods, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next dreary round of continuing resolution and debt-ceiling debates involves more than usual amount of brinksmanship.
We’ll hold out hope that most dire circumstances will somehow be forestalled, just as the more-than-usual-amount of brinkmanship with the North Koreans seems to have provided a brief respite from that round of news, and we’ll count on some sort of established order prevailing at least a little while longer. If the president could be please refrain from picking any more fights with the growing majority of Americans who aren’t among his most stubborn fans we’ll feel better yet.

— Bud Norman