FIVE POINTS: Wake Me Up When September Ends

August 25, 2017

1. Six weeks from now, we will know a lot more about where American politics is heading. The September agenda in Congress is packed. I drew this flowchart a few days ago to lay out some of the big pieces of the agenda:

Some of the agenda consists of so-call Must Pass items: legislation that, if not approved or otherwise dealt with, would have large negative substantive or political consequences. These include raising the debt limit (to avoid default), passing appropriations for FY2018 (to avoid a government shutdown), and reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (to avoid a large number of kids losing health insurance). By their very nature, must-pass items create a very different politics than other issues (such as health care repeal or tax reform); once the status-quo is not an option, everyone who is a player in the game—individual Senators, coalitions of Members, interest groups—shifts their focus to getting their stuff into the bill. And skillful brinksmanship becomes a negotiating asset.

The thing to remember—and one thing my flowchart doesn’t really capture—is that cross-issue bargaining is a huge part of negotiations over must-pass agenda items. You shouldn’t expect any of these issues to be partitioned off into discrete negotiations. And that includes items that aren’t must-pass. Undoubtedly, the BCA caps on discretionary spending will be involved in the negotiations, and perhaps health care and/or tax reform. And looming in the background is the FY2018 budget resolution. As shown in the flowchart, some of these issues are literally connected, because they are procedurally connected; the GOP can’t do party-line tax reform without a budget resolution, and there’s no way the FY2018 appropriations are going to pass without raising the BCA caps. But all of the items are really connected, because Members/parties/interests can withhold support on one to gain leverage on another. This is standard in any legislature (or really any bargaining situation) but a lot of people overlook it.

There has been a tendency to compare September to some of the previous must-pass showdowns over appropriations and the debt limit in the last five years, in which the main players were Obama, Boehner, House conservatives, and Senate compromisers. In many of those interactions, a familiar pattern appeared: Speaker Boehner would pass a very conservative party-line package through the House to allow conservatives to lay down a marker and show off to their constituencies; then Obama, Boehner, and Senate compromisers would cut the actual deal and pass it through the Senate; finally, Boehner would jam the House conservatives by bringing the deal to the floor and pass it using a fair number of Democratic centrist votes, with wings of both parties voting against it and the Speaker graciously taking substantial heat from the right. Many people, including me, expect the politics of September to resemble this. But there are complications:

  • It’s not obvious President Trump is on the side of the compromisers (see below);
  • It’s not obvious Speaker Ryan is prepared to play the whipping boy role Boehner was so good at but that may have ultimately cost him the Speakership;
  • It’s not obvious the Democrats have as much incentive to compromise; and
  • It’s not obvious the conservatives are going to settle for base-pleasing optics paired with substantively losing now that they have a psuedo-ally in the White House

We simply don’t know what is going to happen, on many levels. There’s the substantive level of, on balance, who wins the negotiations (border wall?). There’s the future political ramifications of who does well with the constituent and national optics (2018 ramifications?). There’s the internal ramifications of how the process of negotiation affects the coalitions (wither Speaker Ryan?). There’s the future leverage of various factions (does anyone feel the need to prove resolve by blowing things up?)  And there’s the institutional ramifications for the branches (Does POTUS or Congress come out looking small?).

2. The President’s legislative strategy looks very high risk. The more I watch how President Trump is approaching the legislative arena, the more I realize how much of his strategy revolves around a few key attributes of his:

  • he’s very hesitant to look weak or appear to have “lost”;
  • he doesn’t know much about policy and he’s not really interested in it;
  • he doesn’t really like negotiating that much, at least not in the political realm.

These things are leading to what appears to be a high-risk strategy. He has drawn some pretty serious lines in the sand—most notably his insistence that he’ll shut down the government if the FY2018 appropriations don’t include border wall funding—and he is absolutely blasting Senators from his own party in public right when he probably would be wise to be courting their assistance on the September agenda.

One way to think about this is to consider Sam Kernell’s well-known critique of Neustadt. For Neustadt, there were two resevoirs of presidential power: professional reputation in DC, and public prestige in the nation. The former was much more important; a POTUS with a reputation as a winner and a skilled bargainer could manipulate the DC coalitions and expect to greatly influence public policy while augmenting his own power.

Public prestige, for Neustadt, was a much more blunt and less useful tool; the president could occasionally appeal to the public and try to influence Congress, but it was a poor second choice. It didn’t work well, it pissed off Members of Congress, and it did nothing to influence the many political actors who were well-insulated from the voters. It could help—IKE’s popularity certainly wasn’t a bad thing—but it could never be the basis of power.

Kernell’s thesis was that, by the 1980’s, the traditional bases of power had broken down and fractured in DC, such that bargaining was no longer a particularly attractive or effective options for a President. Instead, there was an increasing incentive to “Go Public” and try to influence outcomes by turning voters against your opposition, effectively going over the heads of your negotiating adversaries and attempting to get the public to brownbeat them into submission. Given that, public prestige—your standing among the voters—became much more important than your professional reputation in Washington.

Plenty of presidents have tried “going public,” with varying degrees of success. Trump seems to be taking the idea to 11. It really looks like he is rolling everything into one great 2018 Hail Mary referendum on his dominance of federal politics: he keeps lashing out publicly at anyone and everyone, Democrat or Republican, who even mildly gets in his way. Jeff Flake. Bob Corker. Paul Ryan. Mitch McConnel. Chuck Schumer. Richard Bluemental.

This is quite obviously not the way to ingratiate yourself as a bargainer who wants to careful negotiate policy and build a professional reputation in DC. This is someone who is hoping (perhaps just implicitly) that he can activate the public to punish anyone who stands in his way. The happy outcome for Trump might be something like Flake and Corker losing primaries in 2018 to Trump-loyalists who hold the seats, or perhaps McConnell being deposed as majority leader. It just seems like a triple bank-shot, certainly with a lot of upside if successful, but very little actual chance of success. Of course…

3. The other side of this is the fixation on dominance politics. I noticed this morning that the administration is now saying it’s not going to release an actual tax plan, and instead leave it up to the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to come up with the actual details of the proposal.  Most people are going to see this as either (1) reflective of White House incompetence; or (2) reflective of Trump’s disinterest in policy details and obsession with just winning. Both of these makes sense. The saga that was the repeal of Obamacare seems like good evidence for both of them.

But I’d like to propose a third option: maybe Trump’s personality and need to maintain his public image of dominance makes him allergic to the very idea of negotiation and compromise. If you don’t come up with detailed White House proposals, you don’t ever have to retreat from your ideal position in order to craft a half loaf of incremental progress. You don’t ever have to negotiate away things you’d really like in order to secure a victory. And, of course, you don’t ever have to learn policy details. If you can’t stomach the idea of having to admit you didn’t win everything you said you would win, perhaps the easiest move is to let someone else decide what is and isn’t winnable before you endorse it.

One problem with this, as it turns out, is that the president’s legislative efforts are endogenous to whether or not he “wins.” Trump likes to win, but the absence of presidential leadership is a huge impediment to winning in the legislative sphere. Sure, you can go for a dubious optics victory: let the Hill GOP come up with a plan, half-heartedly push for it in public, and then blame the Senate Democrats when it fails. But if you want to achieve positive, purposeful policy change in the U.S. system, presidential involvement is, by and large, a required ingredient. And so you sort of get a self-fulfilling prophecy here with Trump: he wants to win and doesn’t really care about policy, but he’s scared of looking weak for having compromised away from his starting negotiating position, so he withdraws from the policy arena and leaves it to others, and the absence of the president from the process reduces greatly the chance of success.

4. The White House is probably dreading the hurricane in Texas. I mentioned last week that events have a funny way of getting in the way of everything on the agenda at the White House. Hurricane Harvey will be no different. In fact, hurricanes (and other natural disasters) have proven to be particularly tough political events for presidents to negotiate. It’s a situation that calls for the public skills of a different kind of executive: namely, a mayor. Someone who responds personally to events and gets in the trenches to help out. And anyone who’s seen a good mayor in action knows exactly how this goes: he goes out with the first-responders and does hours—or even days—of good old fashioned labor. Piling up sandbags. Handing out meals at a relief shelter. Cleaning up garbage and damage. Being in personal public communication with the chief of police and the head of the fire department. Being visible at the scene, not just as an observer, but as an administrator. The optics are simple: this is a community response and I’m not only the leader of the community, but also an ordinary member of it. Not only am I coordinating this response, but I’m also literally executing it.  And it works. Mayors do stuff in this mode every week. It’s not always a emergency, but it’s always leader-on-the-ground.

The president (any president), however, is not the mayor of the nation. He’s too far removed from the front-lines of the first responders. In fact, he’s too far removed from the coordination of the relief effort. His relevant job is to manage a top-level bureaucracy, position the appropriate personnel, make high-level policy decisions when presented with options, and produce accountability by firing people when things go wrong. Even if the president wanted to behave like a mayor in the wake of hurricane, it’s a nightmare: if he shows up on the scene he can’t really help, because he travels with an entourage the size of a football team and creates a massive media circus wherever he goes. So presidents often look unusually helpless in the wake of natural disasters. Bush in Katrina is a great example. His father’s response to hurricane Andrew was’t much better. It’s just really tricky to figure out how to not appear totally aloof and uncaring, but also to not get criticized for getting in the way and/or trying to capitalize on the politics.

Of course, substance matters as much as optics. But you’ll never really know. The federal government might provide an excellent response to Harvey, with the machinery running smoothly and minimizing the suffering for people to the maximum extent possible. And the president may even have a personal hand in that through his control of the bureaucracy. But that will never be the story. Because the White House role in a hurricane, as a optics matter, is to be the mayor. But the job simply doesn’t allow it. And so they muddle through.

5. Jeff Blair started a music podcast.  You might know him as a political writer at Decision Desk HQ, but he’s also a wonderful encyclopedia of knowledge about all sorts of popular music. His tweetstorms on various bands are epic. Elton John. The Beach Boys.  Mott the Hoople. And now’s he’s doing a podcast over at National Review where he’s bringing in a political commentator each week, but only talking about their favorite band. Sean Trende was the first guest, and the band was—wait for it—Van Halen.

Now we’re fucking talking.

Three quick points in response to the podcast: first, they are correct that Van Halen I and 1984 are the two best Van Halen albums. But VH I is way better than 1984. I don’t think it’s particularly close. And that’s before you remember that Van Halen I doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary now, because every band for 15 years tried to copy it. And while many came close, no one really topped it. It’s like A New Hope. You think those special effects look good *now*?

Second, they never really discuss one of the keys to Van Halen. They talk about how great EVH is at guitar, and they talk about the showmanship of DLR, but one of the unique aspect of Van Halen is the combination of hard rock and harmonized vocals. It’s great to have the best guitarist in the world and a top rock showman, and that’s undoubtedly why no one could copy Van Halen. But what makes a song like Feel Your Love Tonight pop is the harmonies.


Finally, I dislike Van Hagar as much as the podcast guests do. But I do think Top of the World is a gem of a song.

See you next time (probably end of next week). Thanks for reading!


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