By the reaction among conservatives, you would think President Donald Trump had just renounced his ties to the Republican Party instead of agreeing to a three-month deal to fund the federal government and extend the debt ceiling. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the Democrats’ proposal that won the president’s backing on Wednesday a “ridiculous and disgraceful” effort to “play politics” with the debt ceiling. But much of the rank-and-file right-wing ire was directed at Republican leaders, including Ryan, for not coming up with a slam-dunk alternative. The Wall Street Journal concluded the bipartisan deal demonstrated “the Republican inability to govern.”
What a bunch of blather. Here’s what the three-month extension on the debt ceiling really represents: not all that much. It simply means Trump agreed to the proposal offered by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi to keep things rolling along for 90 more days (Republican leaders initially backed an 18-month debt ceiling extension plan), a measure that includes nearly $8 billion in relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey. That’s it. The U.S. economy wins because there’s no immediate debt crisis, the government won’t have to shut down and flood victims won’t have to deal with congressional dithering over what is merely a down payment on much-needed emergency help.
Does that represent some big victory for Democrats? Sort of. Certainly, it signals that their members aren’t wholly irrelevant on matters of spending, particularly in the Senate, but that’s well established given the slim GOP majority (and the tendency of some ultra-conservatives not to support federal spending of almost any kind). It’s also a nice victory for Trump who hasn’t had too many to brag about. Republican leaders look a bit flummoxed as a result, but given their performance to date on most high-profile matters from health care to immigration policy, their appearance of confusion is well deserved. The markets welcomed the news, and average folks likely saw the whole thing as a bunch of inside baseball.
But here’s the Republican gripe. It means in December when the extension ends, Congress will have its hands full, and Republican priorities like cutting taxes and spending could be a tougher sell in an even higher-stakes showdown. But what really seems to get the congressional GOP leadership’s goat is how their president — that fellow they’ve been apologizing for and suffering through — now seems to be courting the Democrats. It’s the bipartisanship that many seem to despise. Trump isn’t toeing the party line, and they don’t like it.
That criticism makes sense — if you are a denizen of that political “swamp” Trump likes to upbraid. If you put party before country, if you are beholden to special interests and political fundraising, if you see brinkmanship as the best way to get what you want, then, of course, it’s a setback. And worst of all, if you thought that’s how Trump viewed Washington (and you might, given many of his actions during his first eight months in office), you have a right to feel disappointed.
For the rest of us, Trump’s outreach offers at least a brief glimpse of the kind of independent, pragmatic and non-political president that he occasionally suggested he wanted to be during the campaign. Search the terms “Trump” and “bipartisanship” on the internet, and you’ll find a few promises he made in that direction, but not much evidence of serious effort until now. Trump might have taken that approach on health care, but he didn’t. He might have gone that way on infrastructure spending, which many Democrats support, but he hasn’t to date. He might even have sought a dialogue on entitlement reform; no sign of that yet.
Washington’s toxic, hyper-partisan atmosphere existed well before Trump’s arrival. How disappointing that even the smallest step away from that circumstance produces so much outcry. Trump acted responsibly and reasonably. We haven’t had much opportunity to write those words in 2017. It’s a welcome turn of events, if still relatively modest in scope and impact.