Republicans Are Going to War With Each Other Over ... Something

by Neil H. Buchanan

Is the unsustainable Republican coalition -- big business interests, xenophobes, racists, misogynists, religious fundamentalists, anti-government absolutists, libertarians, militarists, isolationists, and debt-obsessed ignoramuses -- finally cracking apart?  If so, this week might eventually be viewed as the breaking point.

Even before this week, it was clear that the Republicans were in a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump, who highlights so many of their party's contradictions.  I therefore wrote a column yesterday (published today) in which I revisited a fantasy scenario that I had floated last year in which Republicans en masse had repudiated Trump after he secured their presidential nomination.

My basic argument was that Republicans could have "owned" Hillary Clinton if they had seemed to take the high road by helping her defeat a patently dangerous and unqualified nominee who was not really a Republican in the first place.  Republicans hate Clinton, but maybe their best revenge would have been to make her the most miserable and weak president ever.

As I was editing that column, news broke that Trump had infuriated Republicans yet again, this time by siding with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate in negotiations over the budget and the debt ceiling.  I quickly added a reference and a link to that story, further strengthening my assertion that Republicans must truly be hating their life choices right now.

What is odd about this latest development, however, is that it is not at all clear why the Republicans are so upset.  Or, perhaps more accurately, the Republicans all seem to be angry, but for different reasons that are all mostly incoherent and are, in any event, mutually inconsistent.  What is going on?

The basic story is that Trump apparently interrupted his own Treasury Secretary and blurted out his agreement that the budget and debt ceiling questions should be put off until December.  Why is that bad?  I spent the morning reading multiple news accounts about this, and it is still a complete mystery what anyone -- including the reporters who wrote the articles -- is talking about.

Here are links to four different pieces (some straight news articles, some "analysis") in The New York Times (here, here, here, and here) and two in the Washington Post (here and here).  Perhaps I am simply being more slow than usual today, but I am utterly at a loss as to what is truly happening.

Some things are clear.  Everyone agrees that Trump has done something that Republicans do not like and that Democrats do like.  Everyone agrees that Republicans are at a loss as to what to do now.  But why is this "a nightmare come true," or a case where "Trump swerves left," to quote two headlines?

The easy answer is that Trump did something that Democrats had proposed and that Republicans had rejected.  Check.  But on the merits, why is the Democrats' plan so bad for Republicans?  The Republicans had been talking about suspending the debt ceiling for something like eighteen months, but the Democrats only wanted three.  Trump went with three.

According to several of the stories, this was good for the Democrats because it put two pieces of must-pass legislation together in December, which will then give Democrats leverage to make their own demands.  As one of the Post's articles put it:
"Outwardly, key conservative leaders blamed Ryan (Wis.) and McConnell (Ky.) for the concessions — extending the federal debt ceiling for only three months, allowing Democrats to use the threat of a government default to extract policy concessions on a spending bill that also must pass in mid-December."
But the threat of a government default can be used to extract policy concessions on a spending bill that must pass this month.  That is, the status quo prior to yesterday's meeting -- a status quo that has been reported again and again across the media landscape -- is that the debt ceiling's "drop-dead date" is currently September 29, while the government will shut down after September 30 unless the necessary spending bills are passed.

In fact, as a matter of sensible governance, the debt ceiling and the budget should always be determined at the same time.  The 1980's-era "Gephardt Rule," for example, required that any budget package include authorization to increase the debt ceiling by an amount sufficient to accommodate any borrowing that the package necessitates.

If Congress is not going to get rid of the debt ceiling entirely, the next best thing is to force Congress to pass budgets and debt ceiling adjustments simultaneously, precisely because doing so prevents the possibility of default.

In any event, we still need to ask why moving those two issues back by three months is likely to give Democrats more power to extract policy concessions, compared to whatever power they have now.  The only answers that make sense must have something to do with the legislative calendar and the idea that Congress can only do so many things at one time.

But that merely means that Republican leaders are upset because they were hoping to put the debt ceiling and the budget to bed for a longer period of time, so that they can focus on their preferred policy agenda of regressive tax cuts, regressive tax cuts, and more regressive tax cuts.  (All of this will require further adjustments to the debt ceiling, but never mind.)

Yes, there is supposedly the idea that Republicans would also be able to use the newly available time to make another run at the Affordable Care Act, but it is very difficult to imagine that Ryan or (especially) McConnell really wants to go through that extended hell again.

It is true that Pelosi and Schumer wanted the shorter timeline, and they probably have some strategic reasons for doing so, but it is fascinating that even the top newspapers in the country could not write a single coherent story about why this matters substantively.  This is the policy version of horse-race politics: "Trump sided with the Democrats, so the Republicans lost.  We can't offer a coherent explanation, but everyone seems to agree who won and who lost, so just trust us."

But again, the idea that this is a leftward swerve is truly confusing, especially if the alternative was to raise the debt ceiling by an even larger amount -- or, equivalently, suspending it for a longer period of time.  After all, if conservatives were truly worried about debt, and if they are still so confused that they think the debt ceiling has anything to do with controlling debt, they should want to have shorter timelines, or no action at all.

In fact, that does seem to be what the hard-right factions of the Republicans' fragile coalition still believe.  Breitbart headline writers and Freedom Caucus Republicans in Congress are again screaming about "the swamp," but they cannot possibly be angry because Trump overruled Goldman Sachs alum Steve Mnuchin and the Republican elite, who wanted to make the budget and debt ceiling go away for a longer period of time.

It appears that those anti-government extremists are furious because Trump agreed to any deal at all.  They have long wanted a showdown over government spending and debt, and they thought that a debt ceiling crisis would be a pleasant way to get what they want.  But Trump did not give them the crisis that they think he promised them.

That cannot be what Ryan and McConnell are thinking.  Having been perfectly willing to use the debt ceiling for political ends, they now suddenly see that there should be nothing partisan about changing the debt ceiling.  Debt ceiling increases were not something that President Obama "wanted" in any liberal-versus-conservative policy sense, and they are not what Republican leaders want now.  Republicans simply need to prevent a crisis on their watch.

It is especially rich for Paul Ryan to say this: "To play politics with the debt ceiling, like Schumer and Pelosi apparently are doing, I don’t think is a good idea."  Gosh, Mr. Ryan, please tell us more about not playing politics with the debt ceiling.  Your credibility on this issue is unquestioned!

Even so, let us imagine that everyone involved has coherent reasons for taking the positions that they are taking -- even Trump, although it is especially easy to think that his decision was entirely impetuous and not based on any reasoning at all.  We are still left to ask: Why does it matter if Trump sides with the Democrats?

The Republicans control both houses of Congress, so if Republicans honestly believe that Trump is wrong, they have the ability to ignore him.  They have the numbers to pass a bill through both houses of Congress, with absolutely no Democratic votes, to do what they think is best.

If Trump does not like what they do, so what?  He can say, "I really hate McConnell and Ryan, so I'm vetoing this bill," but why would he?  He wants wins, and he seems not to care at all about what he signs.  In the end, he could simply say, "My Republican comrades did what I really wanted them to do after I cleverly flexed my deal-making muscles and forced them to take action.  #JujitsuMove!"

The problem, of course, is that although Republicans have the numbers, they do not have the votes.  After years of nurturing their extremist fringe, Republican leaders know that those people are actually crazy enough to do something truly destructive.  The hard-liners are currently angry with Trump, but not because he failed to back Ryan and McConnell.  That gives the Democrats leverage.

Any such leverage, however, is not a matter of Trump having sided for one day with Pelosi and Schumer on a question of timing.  Republicans are facing the reality that they are at war with each other, but they are not sure what they are fighting about.  The Party of No would rather destroy than create.  They really would have been happier if Clinton were president.