The Wrong Foot

by John Lawrence

Whatever Donald Trump mused about on New Year’s Eve, while gorging himself on ravioli pasta, beef tenderloin, and baked Alaska (apparently missing the irony of serving this particular dessert in a time of climate change), it decidedly was not how to improve his working relationship with the Democratic congressional leadership. Presumably, someone at the White House understands they are going to have to collaborate with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a raft of urgent policy matters including an upcoming spending resolution, a new budget, and immigration reform.

But Trump began the New Year brimming with contempt for those he will likely need to avert a cataclysmic government shutdown and policy meltdown. A White House parley with the leaders is planned for tomorrow, and Trump not only set the agenda but also once again gratuitously insulted the Democratic participants.

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA,” Trump tweeted on January 2, they are “just interested in politics.” He predicted that “DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, [and] will start ‘falling in love’ with Republicans and their President!” However, all that will have to wait, since White House functionaries have declared that the DACA discussion is off the table for the January 3 meeting although Trump had promised the congressional leaders the issue would be imminently considered.

However, the discussion tomorrow will focus only on “setting budget caps, not immigration or some of these other issues which are on this month’s overall agenda but not driving the substance of this meeting.” In other words, Trump only wants to talk about cutting entitlements, especially Medicaid and Social Security, and slashing non-military domestic discretionary spending while busting through the 2012 military spending caps. You know, the Trump-McConnell-Ryan post-“tax reform” agenda. Pelosi and Schumer have been warned not to raise what the White House consider to be extraneous issues.

I could be misreading the situation, but if that is the way the West Wing meeting goes down, I will volunteer to be one of Santa’s elves next Christmas. It is inconceivable that Pelosi and Schumer would abide by the absurd ground rules laid down by the Trump White House. They certainly will raise DACA and perhaps other urgent issues on which the Congress failed to act in 2017. Those “DACA activists and Hispanics” would have every reason to become frustrated with the Democrats if the leaders did not insist that these topics be raised at the first face-to-face meeting of the year.

Which raises the question: why go through the charade of declaring the Democrats’ highest priorities to be off the table, while only Trump-McConnell-Ryan topics are fit for discussion? Is the goal to make Pelosi and Schumer seem impertinent by raising topics that the White House has declared off limits? Is it to send a signal that only Trump gets to decide what topics are suitable for discussion, and when?

Decoding Trump tweets is as impossible as discerning his strategy or decision-making processes, but it seems obvious that he is trying to create a tableau depicting Democratic insolence and ineffectuality that he will then trumpet as illustrating his superior capacity for determining the parameters of the debate. He is misjudging his adversaries. Pelosi, for one, gives enormous deference to the office of the President, but as she illustrated in her bare knuckles relationship with George W. Bush, she will not hesitate to forcefully confront the person occupying the office, and she certainly will not allow her position, or that of her party and constituents, to be misrepresented or belittled.

Trump closed off his tweet by declaring, “We are about RESULTS.” If he hopes to improve on the desultory legislative record of 2017, however, he is going to have to display sharper political acumen than simply baiting the opposition. Maybe his subcontractors in New York real estate were intimidated by his bluster and bankrolls, but it won’t work with Capitol Hill.