Sunday, January 21, 2018

Who's to blame?

The government is shut down, for the first time ever when a single party controls both houses of Congress plus the presidency. Who's to blame?

It would not be hard to come up with a long list of culprits, and a fair-minded observer might try to apportion the blame widely across the political landscape. Not me. Here are my culprits.

I present Mitch McConnell as Exhibit A. In a lot of ways McConnell is responsible for the long, dreary decline in Senate comity and cooperation, and for its resulting dysfunction. The budget negotiations are currently grounded on the rocks and reefs of Senate procedure.

McConnell, more than anybody, weaponized the Senate rules and used them ruthlessly for partisan combat. McConnell normalized the filibuster as a weapon of scorched-earth obstruction, relentlessly, over the entire Obama administration, to the point that it is now a given that nothing can get through the Senate without 60 votes. That didn't used to be the case. Those chickens are now roosting (and worse) all over McConnell's stated desire to keep the government open.

And McConnell, the master tactician, opted for a failed attempt at brinkmanship when he delayed the final Senate vote until two hours before the ultimate deadline, in a move calculated to force Democrats' hand in the face of impending crisis. Chuck Schumer had proposed holding the vote the night before, to get all the cards on the table with still enough time to possibly negotiate. But McConnell chose to push the vote to the final moments, with the clock running out.

More even than McConnell, we have to blame Donald Trump, who has been manifestly unable to articulate and stick with a consistent position throughout the process. McConnell lamented that it would be nice to know what the president actually wants. Indeed. Trump himself doesn't know the answer to that question (other than to him be the glory), and has vacillated wildly in the past couple of weeks, blown hither and yon by the political—not winds!—but breezes, gentle puffs from his various handlers. This is what happens when you have an ignorant leader with no core motivating principles, no understanding of how the system works, no functional policy apparatus, and no conception of how to move the political process forward.  Every time Trump seems to be on board with a plan, he abruptly and inexplicably reverses himself and the thing blows up. This gets really old.

The latest iteration involved Trump making a public show of magnanimity, on live TV, about how he would sign whatever immigration plan congressional negotiators came up with, without any concern at all for what he himself might want. Shortly thereafter Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin came to him with a bipartisan plan containing compromises that seemed to cover all the bases being discussed, including the money for border security requested by the White House, at which Trump erupted furiously with his tirade against "shithole" countries. The centrist senators, whipsawed, were stunned. What happened? It seems that immigration hawk John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, didn't like what he saw developing and talked Trump into a 180 degree turn, lickety-split. Just like that.

That's how things go in this White House, continuously. If Trump doesn't know what he wants, he should keep his yap shut until he figures it out. But figuring things out is far too much to ask of this supremely incompetent leader, and keeping his yap shut is even more impossible. Everything is ad hoc, and subject to to immediate reversal. Whatever was recently agreed is soon undermined by a tweet. There's no foundation upon which to build any kind of shared understanding, and no sense that any agreement will hold long enough to finalize the deal.

Democrats, who unlike the president are motivated by core principles, have understandably had enough. You can argue about whether they're reacting appropriately to the pervasive dysfunction that confronts them, but at least they can articulate what they want, and negotiate in good faith. And, what they want happens to have large bipartisan support, at least as distinct matters of policy (such as DACA) separate from the budget maneuverings.

It really is long past time for renewal of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This renewal, which has strong bipartisan support, should have been disposed of in standalone legislation many months ago. Attaching it in any manner to the gummed up budget negotiations is nothing short of deplorable. And you can imagine that Democrats were already miffed at Orrin Hatch saying, around the time Republicans were finalizing their deficit-exploding tax bill, that "the reason Chip’s having trouble is because we don’t have money any more." Good God. Perhaps passing it alone as a simple, unencumbered demonstration of goodwill would have gone a long way toward moving everything else along. What an odd idea, that.

Same for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, that's soon to expire. Everybody from the president on down claims to want to do something permanent and meaningful for the "Dreamers," who were brought here illegally as children. Last September, during budget and debt ceiling negotiations with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, Trump said he really really wanted a legislative fix. But the "big-hearted" Trump threw his obscene tantrum in the recent meeting with Graham, Durbin, and some Senate hardliners brought in to explode the deal. Perhaps that was the final straw.

Democrats have apparently concluded that negotiations are not just pointless, but meaningless. Schumer said that negotiating with Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O, saying the president has "turned blowing up bipartisan agreements into an art form."

Amazingly, Schumer even offered funding for the wall. Speaking on the Senate floor, Schumer said that "on the thorniest issue of immigration, the president said many times he would take a deal that included DACA in exchange for the wall. I put that deal on the table in the Oval Office in a sincere effort at compromise. I put the wall on the table in exchange for strong DACA protections in the Graham/Durbin compromise."

"What’s even more frustrating than President Trump’s intransigence," Schumer said, "is the way he seems amenable to these compromises before completely switching positions and backing off."
This really is something new, something unprecedented. The art and practice of government is disintegrating before our eyes. Chaos rules. Indeterminacy dominates. Doubt and confusion run amok. Certainty diffuses instantly into the mists and vapors. Reality is an illusion. Welcome to the presidency of Donald Trump.

Copyright (C) 2018 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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