Politics

This Is What a Sidelined President Looks Like

Is Trump lashing out on Twitter out of political strength or weakness?

Play by play.

Source: Pool/Getty Images

It's remarkable just how irrelevant President Donald Trump has become on Capitol Hill -- and how he keeps finding ways to make it easier for everyone to ignore him. As long as the cameras aren't rolling, at least.

Tuesday, for example, Trump had a meeting scheduled with congressional leaders from both parties over the overdue spending bills that Congress is still bargaining over. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pulled out after he tweeted insults at them, declaring, "I don't see a deal!"

And why not? Trump hasn't demonstrated firm positions on specific items in the budget talks, nor has he proved effective at pushing through any particular initiative. In his public statements, he's given very little evidence that he understands the issues involved, whether it's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or suspended Obamacare payments to insurers or the policy questions surrounding raising budget caps. On all those issues, he's come down on both sides in recent months. Does he even understand the congressional context and rules involved in reaching an agreement? There's no evidence of that. And he's broken commitments to leadership (on both sides of the aisle) before.

So the smartest thing for all concerned is to just treat the president as if he would automatically sign on to any deal that was reached while ignoring any specific input he may have up to that point. As Politico's Jake Sherman puts it:

And not just on the budget. The administration has been largely AWOL on the tax bill as well. It's true that Trump has pushed for big cuts, and is playing a cheerleader role in getting the bill to passage. But it's not at all clear that he's had any influence on the details of either the House or the Senate bill. The serious players on the tax bill have been the House and Senate leadership and the committee chairs, who shaped the bill, and the various Republican factions in the House and individuals in the Senate who have objected to various provisions of it. There's never been a sense -- at least in the public reporting -- that the White House would walk, or even strongly object, if such-and-such portion of the bill dropped out. 

Now, it's not unusual for the president to be on the same page as his party in Congress, so it may often seem as if there's no difference between the White House negotiating for the party and congressional leaders doing the bargaining. But to the extent that is true, it's usually because the president already worked out differences within his own party -- and even so, there are often serious sticking points.

That just doesn't seem to be the case with Trump on any legislation. When it comes to items where he clearly differs from congressional Republicans -- such as infrastructure or the Mexico wall -- he basically just gets rolled and doesn't do much about it. On everything else, he just climbs aboard whatever vehicle is in motion. He appears to have virtually no independent influence at all. In fact, one way to interpret Tuesday's spending bill maneuvers was as a clear retreat from the one time that Trump did defy McConnell and Ryan and made a separate deal with Schumer and Pelosi on short-term procedures for spending bills and the debt limit. It's always hard to assign purpose to Trump's statements, but one possible explanation for his strongly worded tweet was that he needed to reassure Republican leaders that he wouldn't go off on his own again. Which, of course, made the meeting worthless for the Democratic leaders.

Remember, presidential weakness can be just as dangerous as too much presidential strength. For one thing, weak presidents tend to lash out, using the powers of their office, to attempt to get what they can't by normal bargaining. Even without that, however, the policy-making process depends on the president's national perspective and interests, which are simply different than the relatively parochial perspective and interests of every other player in the political system. For the president to absent himself from serious policy formation simply removes his uniquely national perspective from some of the most important parts of governing the nation. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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