I have refrained from jumping on the Trump-defense bandwagon over the budget just as I have refrained from bashing what is a terrible budget bill. Trumpers were righteously indignant, feeling betrayed. Trump defenders always cling to the “Trump is playing 3D chess” (which, in fact, so far he has done). One is evidence of things we can see, the other, as the Bible would say, is faith—evidence of things not yet seen.
Vice President Mike Pence and Sean Spicer put the best lipstick on this pig they could, pointing to the gains in defense spending, the abandonment of the dollar-for-dollar tradeoff of having a dollar of military spending offset by a dollar of domestic spending, or noting that this continuing resolution is really Obama’s budget, not Trump’s. Even so, as Winston Churchill said of the Miracle at Dunkirk, “Wars are not won through great evacuations.” At best, Trump got an evacuation.
But all of this rationalization and all of the scathing criticism overlooks some genuine nightmares that lurk, Freddy Krueger-like, just below the slumbering surface.
Many of us have long thought that elections were the remedy for getting rid of swamp dwellers. We celebrated when Eric Cantor was replaced by Dave Brat. Yet nothing seems to change. Why? We must all reorient our thinking about how Washington works. Sundance, in “Conservative Treehouse,” has done a masterful job of explaining why the Republicans did not have a Repeal/Replace health care bill ready, for example: because the parties do not write legislation, the lobbyists do. Trump arrived with virtually no lobbyists in his debt, nor he in theirs. Quite the contrary, most of Trump’s agenda was to cut the ground out from under the lobbyists. Enter Freddy Krueger.
Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and virtually all of the Congressional and Senate Republicans are deeply, deeply in thrall to these forces. No matter what they say in public utterances, reducing the size and scope of government, limiting illegal immigration, or almost anything else on Trump’s agenda is 180 degrees opposite of what they wish. They must pretend to go along, but when it comes to actual crafting of legislation, actual negotiations, and actual voting, the vast majority will be on the wrong side. The “defense buildup?” That’s easy to justify to many Republicans because of their support from defense contractors. But a Wall? Not a chance. The Republicans in the House are not “divided.” They weren’t “snookered.” They didn’t want to fund Trump’s agenda, and didn’t want to defund their own.
Now, here is Freddy’s reality: Trump arrived thinking that since he won the election (decisively in the Electoral College), since he was the de facto leader of the Republican Party, that Congressional and Senate Republicans would for the most part support his agenda. I’m sure he thought that the few stragglers—a Collins here, a McCain there—could be “negotiated with” on a one-to-one basis. Remember, Trump wins these. He hates package negotiations where it’s more difficult to leverage the opponent.
But the Republicans not only don’t follow him, they are actively and aggressively seeking to undermine his agenda in private, while in public standing beside him. The knives gather around Caesar. It gets worse. Not only to they privately not support him (or want to support him), some of them are itching for the opportunity to remove him. Once again, some observers will say, “Oh, that’s silly. They would be tossed out in 2018 immediately. They’d be primaried.” And it wouldn’t matter, because they’d still find government jobs, lobbying jobs, state level jobs. Look at someone like Ohio’s Mike DeWine. Once a state senator, then a Congressman, then the U.S. Senator from Ohio—thrown out because of his weak-kneed support for guns in the Dem heavy 2006 election, DeWine did not go away. He wasn’t “unelected.” He resurfaced as the Ohio Attorney General in 2011, then has been discussed as the next gubernatorial candidate from Ohio. So here’s one swamp-dweller to whom an election meant nothing. All the readers of this column can think of many De-Wine Kruegers. Do they fear an election? Of course not. It’s merely a temporary job relocation.
I do not think Trump fully grasped this aspect of the Swamp. But the Swamp is deeper.
Remember the Obamacare fight? Remember all the “principled”/”conservative” Democrats who would vote against the Obamacare bill because it had abortion or was a “budget-buster?” What happened to them? What happened to, say, “pro-life” Bart Stupak, who voted for the bill? Oh, he got bounced in the 2010 election, only to join the Venable Law firm . . . in D.C. Think ol’ Bart took a pay cut? In other words, “principle” did not matter, nor did the threat of losing a House seat because there was really nothing to lose.
Now for the really bad part. While neither side wants to acknowledge this, all are aware that Trump’s grip on power is tenuous. No Republican would say as much, but there are likely a dozen House members who would enjoy any excuse to cite “high crimes and misdemeanors” against Trump to support impeachment. Certainly one could find 10 senators, beginning with McCain, Graham, and Collins, who would align with Democrats to convict. There would have to be a “legitimate” reason, but I don’t think Paul Ryan would have to stretch the “high crimes and misdemeanors” phrase too far (remember, it does not require a violation of the law, only whatever the House says is a “high crime or misdemeanor”) to start proceedings. (“I just have to. The circumstances call for it,” he would say.) It’s safe to say that if things continue as at present, many Republican congressmen will lose their seats in 2018, which would only increase the likelihood of impeachment.
So like it or not—and this is not an excuse, but a reality—Trump is totally on his own in the budget process. Rush Limbaugh has insisted that Trump’s team must write the budget themselves, but that will not in any way get it out of one of Ryan’s committees, and certainly won’t get it passed. At the same time, Trump is on the high wire stretched between the Petronas Towers. One observer suggested he hold the next USSC justice hostage to his budget or tax bill—but that plays into the hands of the Swamp, which is perfectly fine with a 4-4 tie that ties Trump’s hands in excluding terrorists or any number of other executive orders.
I don’t know how Trump escapes from this net. All he has going for him now is the job growth and the widely perceived view that he is good for the economy, and that he is keeping America safe. He’ll need that, and more, to eventually find a Trenton where he can win a major game-changing victory.