Once again, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have demonstrated how good they are at surrendering to the unarmed.
Even if Republicans had 80 percent majorities in Congress along with the White House, they would find an excuse for giving Democrats everything they want on the debt ceiling and the upcoming budget bill. The reason is simple: They have no interest in conservative governance. They love giving Democrats what they want, even if they have the power to pass a good bill and even if they’d win a stare-down over a shutdown.
McConnell fights the doctors, not the illness
Earlier this week, McConnell wanted Democrats to understand that he will not let them try to get him to win. Unconditional surrender is the only way forward:
“There is zero chance — no chance — we won’t raise the debt ceiling. No chance. America is not going to default, and we’ll get the job done in conjunction with the secretary of the Treasury.”
There are a couple of important observations about this statement:
- McConnell is right that there is zero chance of default. As I’ve noted before, our revenue stands at about $3.4 trillion a year, and interest on the debt is $270 billion. We have enough funds to deal with the interest and all the other vital functions of government without issuing any more debt. Unfortunately, this is not what McConnell meant by not defaulting. He is using the other side’s false talking point about default.
- The only way we will actually default and, in the long run, have trouble paying interest payments, is not if we fail to raise the debt ceiling but if we fail to lower the debt floor. Why is McConnell making the debt ceiling the problem rather than the actual debt?
- Why would anyone preemptively tell Democrats they will give them anything they want because they are so scared of their obstruction, even when they are in the minority? Putting the repeal of the filibuster aside for a moment, yes, it’s true that Republicans don’t have 60 votes in the Senate. But neither do Democrats! And they don’t have the White House, the House, or a majority vote in the Senate with the leverage to threaten reforms to the filibuster.
The answer to all of these questions is simple: Republicans don’t share our values and goals. Whereas Democrats view brinksmanship as leverage to advance their goals, Republicans view it as the plague to be avoided precisely because they have no interest in our goals. They could have 99 Senate seats, and they would still find an excuse not to do the right thing.
Fear of government shutdown is a phony excuse to perpetuate the status quo
And so it goes with the government funding bill. Republicans have an opportunity to get up in front of the people and declare their priorities in what they plan to fund in the budget and what they plan not to fund. They should fund border security and missile defense while defunding Planned Parenthood, sanctuary cities, refugee resettlement, and other harmful aspects of government. Americans care more about these issues than a 17 percent shutdown of the bureaucracies.
Yet Republicans, in their insular thinking and their broken political barometer, believe that Americans care about what the D.C. media cares about — a government shutdown — and that Democrats would always win a stare-down. It’s kind of like their fear of the monument issue, where every poll shows super-majority opposition to tearing down monuments, yet Republicans are running scared. It’s why they have no interest in fighting sanctuary cities, fighting for free market health care reform, reclaiming power from the courts, or pushing voter ID.
Take a look at what Paul Ryan said about a government shutdown:
"I don't think a government shutdown is necessary and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included,"
Notice the difference in tone between GOP leaders and Chuck Schumer. Democrats will pound the lectern and declare their beliefs and assert their red lines on policy, even when they are extremely unpopular. Yet Republican leaders sound more like cable commentators opining on the state of play with a government shutdown, refusing to fight for their policies.
That is because they don’t have any policies other than pursuing power as an end to itself.
Which brings us to President Trump
Trump was correct to call out McConnell and Ryan for sabotaging the agenda on the debt ceiling and the budget funding over the border wall, which, by the way, is required by current law. Sadly, we are not going to change this leadership until they are defeated or we start a new party. But Trump can fix the way his administration behaves. Guess who was standing next to McConnell while he made his comments on the debt ceiling? Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Trump’s own Treasury secretary has been running around for months calling for what Trump himself is now repudiating. And he has been pressuring conservatives to capitulate. So rather than his administration uniting behind his supposed agenda, his personnel are actually fueling the very behavior from Ryan and McConnell that Trump has rebuked. This is absurd.
The president needs to double down from yesterday’s tweets and get his administration singing in the same key. He needs to create a list of red lines in the budget, red lines that, if crossed, will trigger his veto pen. He should make some form of free market health care reform the condition for raising the debt ceiling, because health care is the largest driver of the debt. Then he must fully support candidates who are willing to have his back and not support McConnell puppets like Luther Strange.
Overall, the president must remember that Twitter is not a policy outcome, especially when almost all his advisers and cabinet members are rowing in the opposite direction. He should remember who supported his campaign agenda and who opposed it and stop banishing supporters while embracing opponents.
As the party stands now, there is not much Trump can do about congressional leaders. But he can consolidate his own message and behavior by bringing his own administration on board.