It had been a while since I cheered any news out of Washington, D.C. But on Tuesday afternoon, President Trump, feeling better than he has in 20 years, decided to spread some of that joy my way with his announcement regarding COVID-19 relief/bailout negotiations between his administration and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that “as usual, she is not negotiating in good faith.… I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election.”
By restarting negotiations, President Trump is laying a trap for himself. Politically, a “deal with Nancy” is a win for Nancy; the bigger the deal, the bigger her win.
Sure, the rest of that tweet promised to pass a “major Stimulus Bill” (in this president’s unique capitalization style) after the election, but still it felt like the first deep gulp of fiscal sanity for a nation swamped by a red-ink tsunami. (The deficit tidal wave culminated in Thursday’s depressing statement from the Congressional Budget Office that “the federal government ran a budget deficit of $3.1 trillion in fiscal year 2020.”)
After Trump’s tweet the stock market did what it always does when it fears that politicians will stop dumping “helicopter money”: it threw a tantrum. But as tantrums go, it wasn’t much of one: the S&P 500 was down a mere 1.4 percent. That’s like a poker player saying, “I think you’re bluffing but I’m not sure enough to bet more than beer money on it.”
Because the market knows that the economy doesn’t actually need more helicopter money. We know some other things, too: Our kids don’t need to be swamped under another $2 trillion of national debt. Redistributing $1,200 to every American adult making $75,000 or less (or $2,400 to every couple making $150,000 or less) with a bonus of $500 per child, including to folks who haven’t lost a cent of income, is not just outrageous, it’s immoral.
If you vote for a bill that gives a two-child couple making $140,000 a helicopter-dumped $3,400 of someone else’s money, you should have the lack-of-courage of your lack-of-convictions and do a Jim Jeffords or at least stop pretending you’re a “fiscal conservative.”
Yet merely seven hours after his Twitterburst of fiscal rationality, the president’s courage began to fail him. He tweeted that “The House & Senate should IMMEDIATELY Approve 25 Billion Dollars for Airline Payroll Support, & 135 Billion Dollars for Paycheck Protection Program for Small Business. Both of these will be fully paid for with unused funds from the Cares Act. Have this money. I will sign now!”
It’s not as bad an idea as another $2 trillion in new spending, but negotiating with yourself never works out well. And just minutes after the president began to wobble, he toppled completely: “If I am sent a Stand Alone Bill for Stimulus Checks ($1,200), they will go out to our great people IMMEDIATELY. I am ready to sign right now. Are you listening Nancy?”
For a man whose brand is strength, the groveling emitted an odor of desperation.
Axios reported that the next day the president called House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying he “wanted a ‘big deal’ with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.” And on Thursday morning in a Fox Business interview with Maria Bartiromo, Mr. Trump said of the negotiating teams, “we got back, we started talking again” and “now [the talks] are starting to work out.”
Work out for whom exactly?
By restarting negotiations, President Trump is laying a trap for himself. Politically, a “deal with Nancy” is a win for Nancy; the bigger the deal, the bigger her win. Not so much for Trump, and definitely not for vulnerable Senate Republicans. In 25 days, not a single American will vote for President Trump based on another dump of helicopter money. Pelosi would get the credit, as Democrats always do for massive spending, especially after Trump’s dramatic, albeit brief, grounding of the helicopters on Tuesday created the appearance that he’s crawling back to Nancy for a political helping hand. As if she’d do anything but shiv him given the opportunity.
Furthermore, as Cocaine Mitch has no doubt explained to POTUS, it’s a spectacularly bad idea to put vulnerable Senate Republicans in the position of having to choose between supporting President Trump and showing a smidgen of fiscal conservatism yet dribbling through their political spider veins. “I used to care about the deficit and debt, I promise. No takebacks!” Yeah, right. And if enough Republicans refuse to go along, Trump and McConnell look feckless and weak. For Pelosi and Schumer, it’s heads I win, tails you lose.
When Republicans start acting like Democrats, fiscally speaking, voters say “we might as well go with the real experts in big spending” and proceed to vote Democrats into office. Who can blame them? Republican voters eventually excused an excursion to “the Appalachian Trail.” But show me a Republican who forgave the betrayal — even though by a very good man — of “Read my lips: No new taxes!” A very good man who may soon no longer be the nation’s most recent one-term president.
President Trump, you were right on Tuesday: Stop negotiating. Ground those helicopters.