I’m being as sympathetic to him as I can be in trying to analyze this. Certainly, in the abstract, it’s good that a Republican president is trying to put a brake on blockbuster spending. Especially after an historic spending binge this summer that’s sent the national debt north of — deep breath — $27 trillion.
But substantively it’s catastrophic considering that the last jobs report was underwhelming and laid-off American workers are desperate for a financial lifeline between now and January.
And politically it’s unfathomable that the president is setting himself up to be blamed for the resulting economic misery four weeks out from a national election in which he and his party currently look to fare very, very badly. The double-edged sword of being an incumbent is that you get credit for a booming economy even if you don’t really deserve it and you get blame for a crumbling economy even if you don’t really deserve it.
Which is why, even if you think this is just a negotiating tactic — gotta walk away from the table sometimes for leverage! — it doesn’t add up. Pelosi’s under no pressure. She’s perfectly fine with Trump balking at a deal. No doubt she believes, probably correctly, that this package is his last chance to rebound with voters before Election Day. A generous deal replete with new stimulus checks might earn him enough goodwill that it puts him back into contention in swing states. If he wants to decline that lifeline and run on his exciting new “you shouldn’t worry about the disease that might kill me” message, she’s willing to accommodate him.
So what exactly is his “leverage” here, particularly when he’s willing to broadcast the fact that he, not she, is the one who gave up on a deal for Americans?
I don’t understand his post-election plan here. The one all but certain outcome on November 3 is that the House will stay blue and Pelosi will still be in charge next year. Why does he think the next round of negotiations will be easier than the current round, especially if House Dems increase their majority?
The reaction was predictable:
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) October 6, 2020
As others are noting in reacting to the news, what’s inexplicable about this is that Trump won the primaries four years ago partly because he wasn’t the sort of Republican who’d try to starve federal programs in the name of fiscal responsibility. President Ted Cruz might slash your Medicare but President Donald Trump didn’t even pretend to care about shrinking government. The fact that he’s trying to lowball Pelosi on financial aid to voters in dire need of it 28 days from an election, in the middle of a pandemic, is an invasion-of-the-body-snatchers moment — as if Cruz and the Republican establishment had secretly replaced him with an impostor more conducive to Paul Ryan Republicanism. “I cannot believe that he is letting the Kudlow/McConnell establishment that he dispatched in the primary talk him into this,” tweeted an amazed Tim Miller. “A massive unforced error. 2016 Trump would’ve said make it 3 trillion and put my face on the checks.”
The weird thing is that those 2016 instincts do still emerge occasionally. The $200 gift cards for prescription drugs that the White House is looking to send to seniors is a naked attempt to bribe them with taxpayer money before Election Day. The negotiations with Pelosi are an opportunity to increase that bribe by several orders of magnitude and expand it to a much larger segment of the electorate. And yet, instead of grabbing Senate Republicans by the throat and telling them to get it done, he’s walking away.
Ross Douthat captured the irony of the situation in a tweet last week. The one guy in the administration who still seems to be on a populist track is the uber-rich Treasury Secretary, not the president who appointed him:
The only administration figure who seems to understand what a populist president needs to do in a pandemic is this guy, and Trump is letting him get hamstrung by Congressional Rs who are planning Tea Party II for the Biden era: pic.twitter.com/XE4Pa1TOBG
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 1, 2020
“So Trump resurrects ‘Just the Flu’ and kills an economic stimulus package on the very same day,” tweeted Saagar Enjeti. “Literally goes all in on his two most unpopular positions with less than a month go to before the election.” Exactly. What’s the strategy here? Is he going for some big-picture “dominance” theme? He whipped COVID, then he put Pelosi in her place. Trump 2020: Who cares if you can’t make rent next month?
🚨🚨🚨Key consequence of stimulus talks falling through:
— Close to 30 million jobless ppl to permanently see an income cut of ~50%
— 40% of restaurants face closure in ~6 months, per surveys
— Tens of thousands of airline workers will be laid off
— No stimulus checks 2.0
— Jeff Stein (@JStein_WaPo) October 6, 2020
I wonder, frankly, if there’s any real strategy at all. The irresistible temptation to psychoanalyze Trump leaves us to wonder if maybe there’s a “grudge match” element to this for him. He resents Pelosi for impeachment, he resents her for the many cutting remarks she’s made about him publicly, and so on principle he refuses to come up to her number even though it’s the best option left on the political menu for him to improve his election chances.
“Mindbogglingly insane,” says conservative Henry Olsen of Trump’s decision to walk away. Olsen isn’t a Never Trumper, he just recognizes that this is grossly damaging both to the public interest and to Trump’s political interest. It makes no sense.
I’ll leave you with this:
In the Times/Siena national poll just a couple of weeks ago, voters overwhelmingly supported a new $2 trillion dollar stimulus package by a 72-23 percent margin. It's just astonishing that a president trailing by 9 points is going to pass on this opportunity
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) October 6, 2020