President Trump’s fragile ego was so tickled by his hurricane relief and debt ceiling agreement with Democratic leaders that he acted on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s sly suggestion that he tweet about the Dreamers’ program, Deferred Action for Childhod Arrivals (DACA).
Of course, no Dreamer or anyone else has any reason to believe Trump will keep his word about anything. But his tweet is a useful marker for congressional Democrats and Republicans now seeking legislation to save DACA. The message is, Trump is open to a deal that protects the Dreamers.
While Pelosi and Schumer beamed like Cheshire cats, House Speaker Paul Ryan managed to extract the knife that Trump inserted into his back Wednesday with a measure of grace. Trump’s decision to side with the Democrats on a three-month debt ceiling increase, he said, was an attempt to have a “bipartisan moment for the country.”
In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said little, grimacing as the presidential shiv remains stuck between his vertebrae.
In the words of one unidentified but candid Republican, “He f**ked us.”
Trump’s backstabbing of the Republican leadership could be an inflection point in his embattled administration. It has incensed Republicans who assumed the president would not abandon them, even as his presidency flails. Trump’s agreement with Schumer and Pelosi, notes Politico, “emboldens Democrats to push for immigration changes or spending priorities without giving an inch to the right.”
There are two upsides to Trump’s dalliance with Democrats, and just as many pitfalls.
1. Save DACA, kill the wall.
Trump’s sudden embrace of Pelosi and Schumer, writes Michael Tomasky in the New York Times, “sets up the possibility of an even bigger deal: In exchange for making the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program permanent law, the Democrats would agree to maybe a couple of billion for the president’s beautiful wall on the border.”
Should the Democrats bargain?
“A part of me would like to say they should. Hey, it’s an actual compromise, just like Washington politicians used to make!” Tomasky writes.
But that would be the wrong conclusion. The Democrats have the leverage, he says, Now they have to use it—by not negotiating on the wall. Politically, DACA is popular with Democrats and moderate Republicans, while Trump’s wall is an expensive boondoggle that will not improve border control, curb illegal immigration or affect drug trafficking. And outside of Trump’s shrinking base, the border wall is not broadly popular.
Immigration activists fume that Schumer and Pelosi could have driven a harder bargain to protect Dreamers now, instead of somewhere down the road. Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin says legislation to save DACA doesn’t have the necessary 60 votes in the Senate yet—but it might in six months.
“As the six-month deadline approaches, the hue and cry will be thunderous,” Tomasky writes. “Republicans will feel enormous pressure. There will be other horses to trade then. But giving an unpopular president money for an unpopular idea is how a minority stays a minority.”
2. End hostage-taking politics.
Since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Republican leaders adopted the rule that the House would only vote to raise the debt ceiling if it was accompanied by equivalent spending cuts and reforms. It was a way of holding the country’s credit rating hostage; if President Obama didn’t go along with demands for spending cuts, the nation’s credit rating would be damaged.
The result was regular confrontations that paralyzed the government and prompted Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the nation’s credit rating for the first time.
On Wednesday, Trump signaled he is open to ending the politics of hostage-taking. When Schumer floated the idea of eliminating the debt-ceiling vote, Trump welcomed it. “There are a lot of good reasons to do that,” Trump told reporters.
Trump is simply recognizing that the politics of hostage-taking no longer favor the Republican leadership now that they control all three branches of government. That’s why Ryan and McConnell wanted a deal to delay the debt ceiling vote until after the 2018 election, and why Pelosi and Schumer wanted a vote in December: to pressurize Republicans.
Writing in the Atlantic, Russell Berman says that abolishing the separate debt ceiling would “voluntarily relinquish the leverage they just exerted over Trump and the Republicans.”
But it might be worth it, if it means that President Warren or President Biden doesn’t have to beg a GOP Congress for debt-ceiling increases in 2021, as President Obama had to do in 2011.
The larger story here is that Trump’s excess of ego and deficit of principles—which enabled him to betray Ryan and McConnell with shameless ease—are part and parcel of his weakness.
In the president’s desperate search for a “win,” he can be manipulated into advancing the Democratic agenda, as Schumer and Pelosi demonstrated this week.