I hope all of you reactionaries are having a nice weekend.
Regarding the coming shutdown fight, the current conventional wisdom is correct. Threatening to shut down the government over a wall-for-subsidies threat, is a bad strategy, unlikely to work and also likely to cause Trump and the Republicans collateral damage as it fails to work.
But the limitation to applying the conventional wisdom here is that this is not the conventional shut down scenario, so applying conventional wisdom must be done cautiously and with regard for the differences.
The biggest difference is that in this case it is the president, a Republican president, who is making the threat, taking the legislative hostage, while in all previous such games of legislative chicken, it was the legislative Republicans playing chicken against a Democrat president. Well, if the game is chicken, a unitary actor, such as the president, has a big structural advantage over players that are group actors, such as the House and Senate. The mechanics of how this would play out, if they go forward with it, is that Trump vetoes at least the funding bill that does the subsidies. The thing is, he can veto or swerve aside at the last minute entirely on his own will, without having to keep a majority behind either course of action. That inherently renders any threat he makes much more credible than anything Republicans or Democrats in Congress threaten. They have to keep a coalition together, Trump doesn’t.
And this unitary actor in the WH is unusually credible at threatening consequences that more conventional politicians would shrink from actually going through with. Trump has this combination that would indeed be a winning combination in a game of chicken, that he doesn’t care about the destructive consequences even if he believed they would actually happen, and he can convince himself that they won’t happen. It’s not even wishful thinking for him, it’s willful lack of thinking.
It is true that the adversary in this game of legislative chicken will be the Republican leadership in Congress. The threat Trump makes, and then has to follow through on if the other side doesn’t knuckle under, is to veto at least the subsidies funding bill that the Republican leadership has gotten through both chambers. The Republican leadership is more likely to follow the conventional wisdom that shutdowns are bad politics, and will therefore more likely not do what it would have to do to get the subsidies-for-wall provision into the funding bills. At the least, this would involve changing the rules of the Senate to allow such a bill to get through on a simple majority rather than requiring 60 votes. But it’s also possible that enough moderate Republicans, House and Senate, would vote against funding the wall that such a funding bill wouldn’t get a majority in one chamber or the other. This is even more likely if funding the wall is linked to threatening subsidies.
But, from Trump’s perspective, fighting this game of chicken against the Republican legislative leadership is a feature, not a bug. Success against that leadership will make the triumph entirely his. It will validate his presidency in a way that even solid and respectable legislative achievements gained the conventional way, working with his party’s Congressional leadership, could not. The Republican Congressional leadership would get all the credit for such successes, because Trump has already made it clear that he is some combination of uninterested and totally incompetent at getting things through Congress the conventional way, through negotiation and compromise.
Take that thought as the strongest reason for Trump to go through with this game of chicken, that he will never have any success doing things the conventional way. He’s unsuited to that method, and so obviously unsuited that he will get none of the credit even for what pathetically small success he might achieve by playing the conventional game. And Trump has to succeed bigly, not in some small way, not like Obama who struggled mightily for years to barely manage to get Romneycare through. Trump was not elected to get small incremental changes in public policy through. His whole political identity is that refuses to play along with the conventional constraints that keep America from its former greatness. He will make the bold plays that will outrage and dismay conventional politicians, of both parties, and thus achieve the great things that both parties now leave unaccomplished because they do not dare to be great. If he fails to deliver big decisive wins by upending conventional politics, then he will be a failure. If he fails even at small things after cravenly going back on his promise and pursuing conventional means, then he will be an abject failure, a laughingstock, someone who isn’t even any good at the conventional politics he once scorned as beneath him.
If Trump had a work ethic and some basic competence and self-insight, this is what he would do, take up legislative chicken and crush his enemies, chiefly the Republican Congressional leadership. This is the only way he wins. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t seem to have much work ethic, or to be taking guidance from some eminence grise who could effectively pursue this game of legislative chicken. That’s all we have at this point, the hope that these people are just purposeless idiots, that none of them – at least none of them who can get Trump to play his role in their schemes – has any real vision or drive. This is probably not a vain hope, but hope really isn’t a plan.