Mock Donald Trump’s legislative ignorance if you will, but for a brief, shining stretch during the past week, he managed to bring about a rare Washington phenomenon: House and Senate Democrats saying nice things about their GOP
counterparts. Publicly. With straight faces. That the president accomplished this entirely by accident makes the feat no less remarkable.
It has been like a scene straight out of a No Labels kumbaya, centrist fantasy: As Congress hammers out a deal to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year, Democrats have been lauding Republicans for handling negotiations in a thoughtful, productive, bipartisan manner.
“Appropriators are all about getting something done,” a senior Democratic House aide noted approvingly of the process. And with the April 28 deadline looming, he told me, members of both teams “had been chugging along, making progress, doing a really good job of getting past some riders.”
But then, say Democrats, chaos erupted. Up popped President Trump, demanding billions for his border wall, threatening sanctuary cities, clamoring for a quickie health care vote, and generally screwing things up by sticking his big orange nose into delicate Hill business.
“Before, the parties were negotiating quite well until Donald Trump and the White House threw a monkey wrench into it,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on a conference call Monday morning. “If the president stepped out of it, we could get a budget done by Friday.”
Call co-host Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, proffered a similar take: “I know appropriators try very hard to work in a bipartisan way, and that was the path that we were on until the president intervened.”
Thanks to Trump’s ham-fisted meddling, charge Democrats, the budget talks have gone from civilized and low-key to, as the House aide put it, utterly “whackadoo.”
Now, shrewd students of Congress may be inclined to point out that the budgeting process never runs smoothly. And the notion that, in the current political climate, negotiations would have continued chugging along until a bipartisan agreement was amicably reached is, well, whackadoo. (If nothing else, sticky issues tend to get kicked to the end of the process, and it’s when appropriators hand the bill off to leadership that things often turn ugly.)
From a messaging standpoint, however, Dems’ blaming Trump for poisoning the well of this budget battle is a no-brainer.
“This is one of the oldest plays in the playbook,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate aide to Democratic leadership. “What Democrats are trying to do here is drive a wedge between House and Senate Republicans and the White House.”
“He is the head of the party, whether the Rs like it or not,” a former House leadership staffer emailed me. “And he is the most unpopular President at the 100-day mark of any president in modern times, so of course Dems will lay this at his doorstep.”
Ironically, since before Trump was even sworn in, congressional Democrats have been saying that their strategy would be to look for ways to drive a wedge between the president and GOP lawmakers—though in precisely the opposite direction. Dems said they were open to working with Trump on progressive-friendly policies like infrastructure and trade, while stiff-arming Paul Ryan and Co.’s conservative agenda.
But Trump’s chest-thumping over the border wall proved too perfect a target for Democrats to ignore. And so their divide-and-conquer strategy, at least temporarily, took a 180-degree turn.
Not that Hill Dems are remotely disingenuous in voicing frustration and outrage over the president’s intrusion. “It really is Trump’s fault. He is the one insisting on including the wall, not Congress, and that is a deal breaker for Dems,” said the former House staffer.
Until Trump started with all the chest beating, stressed the current House aide, Republican legislators were not talking about the wall. “They were talking about getting some face-saving additional border security funding—non-wall technology or something. Everybody thought that would be the way this played out.” But then the president began issuing demands and threats, many of them delivered by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
“He is quite possibly the worst messenger for this sort of topic,” said the aide, pointing to Mulvaney’s congressional history of helping blow up multiple budget deals and of playing a key role in the 2013 government shutdown. Inserting Mulvaney into the situation, said the aide, “has not been helpful to the prospects of keeping government open.”
Democrats’ genuine dismay notwithstanding, if the messaging also happens to serve the party’s political fortunes, all the better. Chipping away at Trump’s popularity is significantly more useful to the blue team than throwing shade at congressional Republicans. As Democrats know all too well, public unhappiness with the president tends to ooze over onto lawmakers of his party.
“As long as we do our jobs and make the Republicans in Congress own this president, they're all going to get blamed,” said Kristen Hawn, a Hill staffer turned Democratic strategist. “When you've got control of House, Senate, and the White House, it's really difficult to go back home and try to message to your constituents that the president somehow shoulders all the blame by himself. We always struggled with that as moderates,” said Hawn, who worked with the centrist Blue Dogs. “It didn't matter how our bosses voted or how many times they opposed Obama,” she recalled, “they were always branded Obama/Pelosi Democrats.”
Even Trump seemed to belatedly realize his misstep. By Monday evening, he was furiously back-pedaling on the wall, telling a gathering of conservative journalists that he would now consider deferring the fight until later this year.
But grave damage has already been done. Whatever comes out of this week’s budget fight, no matter how zany it may get, a big chunk of the narrative will focus on presidential overreach and incompetence. Which is ultimately a bigger gift to Democrats than any damage they could inflict upon their legislative adversaries.