OK, I Guess Ryan and McConnell Really Did Get Taken to the Cleaners

Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

This morning I suggested that President Trump’s deal with Democrats to extend government funding and the debt ceiling for three months was, in fact, something of a relief to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. They wanted a deal that solved their near-term problems, but because the ultra-cons in their own party opposed any kind of compromise, they also wanted to keep their fingerprints off it. Having Trump do the dirty work was perfect for them.

I think it’s safe to say that no one on the planet agrees with me:

  • Wall Street Journal: “Trump stuns GOP…likely to inflame tensions between the president and his fellow Republicans…Senate Republican aides said the deal registered as a rebuke.”
  • Washington Post: “Trump confounded his party’s leaders…upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling…follows a summer of presidential stewing over McConnell and Ryan.”
  • Politico: “Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal…doesn’t appear to help Republicans at all…undercut leadership.”
  • New York Times: “Reflected friction between the president and his party…an extraordinary public turn for the president…Republican leaders looked grim but resigned afterward.”
  • LA Times: “Caught Republican leaders off guard and severely undercut their legislative strategy…left several Republican lawmakers seething…McConnell made clear that the deal was Trump’s, even as he agreed to support it.”

I suppose Occam’s Razor supports this view. Trump was most likely being his usual dickish self. He’s mad at McConnell and Ryan right now, so he decided to screw them over with a clumsy warning that he might team up with Dems if they don’t start toeing the Trump line.¹ Anything more complicated than that is probably beyond Trump’s emotional and cognitive range.

And yet…there’s still something odd about this. Two somethings, in fact:

  • Here’s what McConnell said after the Oval Office meeting: “The president agreed with Sen. Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi to do a three-month [funding extension] and a debt ceiling into December, and that’s what I will be offering based on the president’s decision, to the bill.” Since when does McConnell just roll over and do whatever Trump says? And since when does he make it very very clear that this isn’t his fault, no how no way, it’s just what the president wants to do?
  • The reason Republicans are “stunned” is because this is supposed to be a terrible deal for them. But is it? Right now Democrats have a lot of leverage because Republicans need to get so much done between now and the end of the month. Even routine dilatory tactics would kill them. Now McConnell has the opportunity to clean up a few things and then spend a couple of months negotiating the budget. That works in his favor. And what does he lose? Supposedly, he could have pushed through a longer debt ceiling increase if it was tied to Harvey aid because Dems would have been unwilling to vote against it. I have my doubts about that, but in any case, a longer debt ceiling increase is precisely what the conservative ultras were against. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of Republicans who would have voted against Harvey aid if it included a 2-year debt ceiling increase. That was leadership’s big problem, not Democrats.

I’m no legislative guru, but if I didn’t know better I’d say that today’s outcome sounds like a preplanned bit of McConnell kabuki. OK, we’re agreed. In the morning Paul will call a 3-month increase ridiculous. We’ll pretend to argue about it in the Oval Office. Halfway through you’ll cut us off and agree with the Democrats. Be sure to make it look real, Mr. President! Then Paul and I will come out looking whipped, and I’ll make it clear that we hate this and are only doing it because the president laid down the law. We’ll even manage a few leaks to make it look more authentic. Everybody loves it when anonymous sources deliver some dirt. Everyone in? Good.

I know, I know. There’s no way. This kind of stuff only happens in bad movies, and Trump is incapable of playacting like this anyway. But damn. This whole deal still looks so good for McConnell and Ryan that I’d swear it was choreographed.

¹This has never made any sense, since Republicans control the floor of Congress. Trump can work with Democrats all he wants, but their bills are going precisely nowhere unless Ryan and McConnell let them. For some reason, though, this possibility seems to be taken seriously by a lot of people.