Yesterday, an impatient and irritable President Trump undermined his own party’s negotiations and agreed to to a debt-ceiling increase on a timetable proposed by Democrats. At that point, all hell broke loose. The far-right wing of the Republican Party irrationally blamed Paul Ryan for the debacle. But just as irrational has been the response of the Republican Establishment, which has likewise used the deal as a pretext to unleash pent-up recriminations.
“Democrats got more done in a single Oval Office visit in one afternoon than the congressional Republicans have achieved all year,” complains one Republican operative. To conservatives who have distrusted Trump all along, this proved their suspicion that the president was not a true conservative. The deal is “a glimpse of how the ‘pivot’ to the center would work,” warns the Federalist’s Ben Domenech. “President Trump spent his first day as a Democratic president on Wednesday,” says Ben Shapiro. “At least we don’t have to suffer through any more earnest liberal think pieces about how Trump is actually an arch conservative,” argues Noah Rothman.
This point of view, which is close to the center of Establishment Republican thinking, has heavily inflected news coverage, which has amplified the intra-party backbiting. “President Trump, a man of few allegiances who seized control of the Republican Party in a hostile takeover, suddenly aligned himself with Democrats on Wednesday on a series of key fiscal issues,” blares the Washington Post.
These are not, in fact, “key fiscal issues.” Raising the debt ceiling is a pure mechanical operation that has happened with regularity under both parties. Trump may have submitted to the Democrats prematurely, but he was going to have to compromise with them eventually, since he needs their votes. (This is because a wing of the Republican Party refuses to vote for debt-ceiling increases.) Trump might have given them leverage to demand policy concessions down the road, but there is no reason to believe either that Democrats will actually win those concessions, or that Trump is aware that he might have enabled them. Trump’s compromising on a key fiscal issue would be something like agreeing to write a 1986-style tax reform that did not give rich people a net tax cut, or to support bipartisan negotiations to patch up Obamacare. He has resolutely refused to do anything like that.
What made the debt-ceiling compromise so noteworthy is that it represents the first time Trump bargained with the opposing party in any meaningful way. He has governed almost exclusively as an orthodox movement conservative. Trump has done nothing on trade, has abandoned his plan to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, has thrown his support behind any repeal or rollback of Obamacare that Congress could pass (which turns out to be nothing), is trying to pass the largest regressive tax cut possible, and has diligently slashed regulations on business.
This has created a philosophical crisis of sorts for a certain brand of conservative, those who oppose Trump while trying to extricate conservatism from what they foresee as his failure. Proceeding from the premise that Trump is a hostile alien who landed on their party purely by accident, they have presented his failures as the result of personality flaws unrelated to substance. When Obamacare repeal collapsed in Congress, anti-Trump conservative John Podhoretz called it “the necessary end result of seven months in which the president of the United States ate up all the oxygen in Washington with his ugly, petty, seething, resentful rages and foolishnesses as expressed in 140 illiterate characters.” In truth, Trump did not help the cause, but the party’s clear inability to agree on a plan that did not have horrific humanitarian consequences was an obvious, unacknowledged culprit.
From the perspective of these conservatives, Trump’s fealty to right-wing orthodoxy was decidedly inconvenient. The debt ceiling presented a rare opportunity for them to present Trump as the figure they cast him as all along: the New York Democrat posing as a conservative Republican. The fact that they had to wait seven and a half months to find an example of his ideological heresy — and that the case they found was the picayune issue of a three-month debt-ceiling increase versus a six-month debt-ceiling increase — itself disproves their point.