Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why Pelosi Gets More Attention Than Schumer For Taking on Trump

In the wake of President Trump's decision last Friday to sign a temporary continuing resolution that reopened the government for three weeks, thus ending the longest federal shutdown in American history, the most popular interpretation of this development (widely held in all but the most pro-Trump corners of the conservative media) was that Trump had conceded defeat in a one-on-one battle of wills with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi, by most accounts, had personally outmaneuvered, outwitted, and simply out-toughed the president. The resulting headlines tell this story clearly enough: "How Nancy Pelosi Ended Donald Trump's Shutdown" by Ezra Klein of Vox; "'She's Not One to Bluff': How Pelosi Won the Shutdown Battle" by Politico"How Nancy Pelosi Used Her Smarts and Strength to Absolutely Dominate Donald Trump" by columnist Elizabeth Drew.

This Pelosi-centered frame prevailed even though the precipitating legislative maneuver that preceded Trump's concession occurred in the Senate. Last Thursday, Mitch McConnell introduced a Trump-backed proposal that included billions in funding for a border wall; it received only 1 Democratic vote (from Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Senate's least liberal Democrat) and lost 2 votes from arch-conservative Republicans. McConnell then allowed consideration of a Democratic alternative "clean bill" that lacked wall funding, which attracted a higher level of support by combining a unanimous vote from Democrats with 6 defecting Republicans. It was clear at that point that momentum had turned against the White House.

According to a report from Axios, it was only after Chuck Schumer told McConnell that Trump's idea for a "down payment" on the wall funding was a non-starter among Senate Democrats that Trump was convinced to drop his demands and reopen the government. Schumer had previously goaded Trump into taking responsibility for the shutdown during a December meeting in the Oval Office that Trump had abruptly opened to the press. Throughout the entire process, Schumer and Pelosi seem to have worked in close collaboration to oppose the White House and congressional Republicans—even appearing together to deliver the response to Trump's national address on January 8. Yet the same media stories that featured blaring headlines crediting Pelosi for besting Trump relegated Schumer's role to brief passages in the bottom paragraphs when they mentioned him at all.

Why have the two Democratic leaders received such different coverage, in both quantity and quality, during and after the shutdown? Here are three reasons for this pattern:

1. Personal Reputation. Before the shutdown occurred, Pelosi was widely considered to be a committed liberal, while Schumer was viewed as much more of a "squish." This distinction is not unjustified. Yet it reflects the differing institutional constraints of the two Democrats as much as their personal instincts. The procedural complexity of the Senate requires its leaders to be more transactional than the majoritarian House, and Schumer's need to defend ten members of his caucus running for reelection in Trump-carried states during the 2017–18 session of Congress constrained his ability to lead the public opposition to the president—in contrast to Pelosi, who was freer to play offense. But it also meant that media analysts and partisans on both sides were likely to view the shutdown resolution as a victory for the supposedly tougher and more principled Pelosi regardless of the true nature of events. (Note the January 15 headline from the satirical Onion: "Chuck Schumer Honestly Pretty Amazed He Hasn't Caved Yet.")

2. Job Title. Put simply, Pelosi is the leader of a majority and the most powerful legislator in her chamber, and Schumer is not. It is thus natural in a sense for her to be treated as the primary face of the opposition to Trump, even if the Senate minority's ability to exercise obstructive power via the filibuster is a fundamental characteristic of our political system. Pelosi was also in the position to send a highly-publicized letter to Trump disinviting the president from giving his State of the Union address until the shutdown was ended, which certainly added to the perceptions that the larger partisan standoff over the border wall amounted to a personal conflict between the two of them.

3. Gender. Nancy Pelosi has been a highly skilled and effective legislative leader for 16 years, including a very productive previous tenure as speaker between 2007 and 2010. It is hardly a coincidence, however, that after almost two decades in power she has achieved a newfound status as a national feminist icon at a time when the opposing president is Donald Trump. Even for the mainstream press, the idea of anti-Trump forces being led by a woman is simply too good a story line not to adopt as the dominant frame of the current partisan divide in Washington. Journalists are especially interested to know what Trump thinks of Pelosi—a curiosity that does not extend equally to Schumer or many other Democrats.

Gender is on everybody's mind more than usual these days. If, say, Patty Murray were serving as the Senate minority leader rather than Schumer, it's very likely that the events of the past several weeks would have been framed as "Trump versus two women" rather than "Trump versus Pelosi," even if the legislative roles, sequence of developments, and final outcome had remained the same. At a time when journalists and citizens alike are even more inclined than usual to view politics in terms of the personalities and identities of individuals rather than larger structural or institutional factors, it's worth remembering that the stories we're told are sometimes the stories we're in the mood to hear.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Honest Graft in the Washington Post: Why Trump Didn't Get His Wall

Today in the Washington Post, I explain why the Republican-controlled Congress of 2017–2018 didn't fund Trump's border wall when they had the chance, and why Republicans are better off keeping immigration as an issue than trying to implement their favored policy solutions.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Now Trump Wants His Wall, But It Looks Like He's Two Years Too Late

The border wall is often described as Donald Trump's signature issue, his most famous campaign promise, the very rationale for his political career—and therefore the most urgent priority of his presidency. And, indeed, Trump's recent behavior seemingly confirms this view. His unmet demands for $5 billion in wall funding have resulted in a goverment shutdown now approaching three weeks in length, and his first nationally televised Oval Office address Tuesday night, though brief and uneventful, was devoted entirely to justifying this hardball approach to what he characterizes as a "crisis" at the border. Trump is even supposedly considering the extraordinary step of declaring a national emergency that might allow him to move forward on wall construction without congressional approval, though his right to do so would remain unsettled at best for months or even years in the face of certain legal challenges.

Both allies and critics concede the centrality of the wall issue to Trump's political appeal and personal connection with his most enthusiastic supporters. But if building the wall was so necessary to the success of his presidency, why did he wait until now to act?

Trump made a very consequential decision soon after his unexpected election in November 2016 to delegate the prioritization of a legislative program to the Republican leadership in Congress: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the wall was far from the top priority for either Ryan or McConnell, who cared much more about repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform. Addressing those two issues thus became the first order of business for Congress, while objectives that were more personally associated with Trump—like the border wall and infrastructure spending—moved further down the "to do" list.

At least in public, Ryan and McConnell assured Trump and other Republicans that they would get to everything on the agenda. Under the timeline unveiled at a January 2017 party retreat, ACA repeal would be accomplished by March, with tax reform following by the end of July—at which point the first phase of wall funding would be in place and an infrastructure bill would be well in the pipeline. But legislative business has a way of taking longer than expected, and in the end Republicans spent the first nine months of 2017 unsuccessfully attempting to pass a health care bill before giving up and moving to tax reform, which they pushed through in December.

By the time Congress turned its attention to immigration in early 2018, spurred on by the Trump-ordered expiration of the DACA program, a combination of several factors (fast-approaching midterm elections, Ryan's soon-to-be-public departure and its associated internal Republican leadership competition, and an increasingly beleaguered and intransigent White House) limited the potential for legislative accomplishment. Republican leaders successfully convinced Trump to wait until after the midterms to demand his wall money, avoiding an electorally disastrous pre-November shutdown but setting up a standoff in the final weeks of the 115th Congress that has now extended into the second week of the 116th.

One lesson that the Trump White House might have usefully taken from American history is that there is such a thing as a presidential "honeymoon": presidents usually have an easier time working their will in Congress during the early months of their first term than any time thereafter. But Trump, an unsophisticated newcomer to legislative politics with an amateurish and perpetually squabbling cadre of advisors, was not well-positioned to dispute the assurances of Ryan and McConnell that they knew best how to proceed—yet another example of his uniquely weak presidency. Two years later, Trump may come to regret that he didn't insist on funding for the border wall right away; the many months spent fruitlessly pursuing health care reform certainly seem in retrospect like wasted time. Though presidents may gain valuable wisdom through experience in office, the opportunity for realizing ambitious legislative change is greatest when they are still brand new to the job.