Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the border-wall standoff, Mitt Romney’s anti-Trump op-ed, and Elizabeth Warren’s run for the White House.
At the dawn of the new Congress, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is adamant that Democrats will not budge on border-wall funding in the ongoing shutdown negotiations and, in early interviews, is not taking impeachment off the table. Will she have to offer something Trump can spin as a victory, or will their first standoff end with him folding on his demands?
Pelosi is the most seasoned and arguably the most impressive leader that the Democrats currently have, the party’s presidential aspirants included. When she talks about the wall being fundamentally immoral and un-American, as she did upon reassuming the Speakership this week, she is drawing a line she won’t cross. Strictly as a political matter, she’s holding too many cards to back down. Trump’s exuberant embrace of ownership of the shutdown in last month’s Oval Office meeting is self-incriminating video he can’t claw back. The record of the Senate Republicans’ pre-holiday vote to fund the government and avert a shutdown can’t be erased just because Mitch McConnell, deferring to Trump, now refuses to bring the exact same legislation back to the floor. And the pain a prolonged shutdown will inflict will metastasize, inflicting political pain on the GOP’s narrow Senate majority as well.
Trump says that most federal employees directly affected by the shutdown are Democrats. Even if that could be proved, it’s irrelevant. Not having a clue about how government works, the president doesn’t seem to realize that the shutdown will reach deeply into the private sector. Four out of ten people working for the federal government are contractors, according to a 2017 analysis cited by the Washington Post. Small vendors who provide everything from cafeteria workers in government facilities to IT services to government offices will suffer. The absence of federal employees in Washington who approve paperwork essential to the smooth running of big and small business alike will disrupt households in all 50 states. They will call their senators. Something will have to give.
What will? The two senators who are already talking about defecting, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have little choice but to do so: They are the two GOP incumbents up for reelection in 2020 in states won by Hillary Clinton. (Though the posturing Collins can never be trusted to put country above party, in this instance she can be counted on to put her own political future above party.) Martha McSally, appointed to her seat in purple-ish Arizona and also up in 2020, may be another gettable Republican vote. There are other potential wild cards, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the retiring Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. But there’s also a scenario where the impulsive Trump gets bored or distracted and moves on to other battles of a more existential urgency. The investigations being conducted by Robert Mueller, the Southern District of New York, and the new Democratic House have not taken a break for the shutdown. Whatever new results they bring will command his attention with or without any House move toward impeachment.
When Trump capitulates on the shutdown, he’ll say he’s “won” no matter what the particulars are. He’s already been readying that plan, at various times declaring that the wall is already nearing completion, or redefining the word “wall” as “steel slats” or “barrier” or whatever. (As Pelosi has joked, it will soon be a “beaded curtain.”) He knows that his base will buy any victory he claims, and it’s likely that the hard-liners at Fox News, including Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, will get with the program as well when there’s no other way out.
After Mitt Romney’s anti-Trump op-ed this week, the new Utah senator was criticized by conservatives both for going too far and for not committing to go far enough. Can he lead an anti-Trump GOP faction, or will he be this Congress’s Jeff Flake?
For all his showboating, one senator who will not break with the party line on the shutdown is Romney, who is on record supporting Trump’s push for the wall. He is not part of an anti-Trump GOP faction — if one can even be said to exist among Republicans in the Senate — and he’s not the leader of anything. When Trump responded to Romney’s op-ed by asking if he would be “a Flake,” the answer was yes. But only if you define Flake correctly. A Flake is a Republican Trump critic who, like Collins and the now retired Bob Corker, talks a good game about defying the president but in the end surrenders to his agenda on the roll-call votes that matter. Flakes are not to be confused with NeverTrumpers, those out-of-power Republican elites who sound off on Twitter and MSNBC; they are MostlyTrumpers.
As many have said apropos of Trump, people don’t change in their 70s. That’s equally true of Romney, a vacillator and flip-flopper who started backtracking from his op-ed within 24 hours of its publication by the Washington Post, much as he had backtracked on his 2016 criticisms of Trump when he deluded himself that the president-elect might make him secretary of State. The real point of Romney’s piece, despite his denials, is to at least leave the door open for a presidential run. And this has led to a certain amount of Washington speculation imagining a 2020 GOP presidential primary in which Flake, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio all run to restore sanity to their party in a post-Trump era.
They may run, but it’s too little and too late. Polls show that Republicans support Trump by whopping, even historic, numbers nearing 90 percent — approaching support for George W. Bush after 9/11. The GOP is the Trumpist party. Whenever and however Trump leaves office, the notion that a Flake or a Romney might restore the old regime is a fantasy — just as it was a nonstarter when a previous generation of Establishment Republicans typified by Nelson Rockefeller and Romney’s father, George, imagined they could thwart the rise of the Goldwater-Reagan revolution. Trump’s base will regard the GOP Trump critics, meek as they are, as saboteurs of the cause, as indeed they characterized Romney this week. Even Romney’s own niece, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, condemned him for a few discouraging words about her party’s Dear Leader.
Elizabeth Warren has kicked off the Democrats’ 2020 presidential race in what some observers are calling the most open competition the party has seen in nearly 30 years. What are her chances?
I don’t have a clue and neither does anyone else at this early date. Meanwhile, in the case of Warren, there are already gender-fueled debates about whether she’s “likable” or not; as the Post distilled it in a headline: “Before you run against Trump, you have to run against Hillary (if you’re a woman).” Like many others, I found Warren plenty likable when she emerged as a regular on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown, talking sense about the inequality and sometimes criminality of America’s economic order. No national elected official, President Obama included, was so clear, eloquent, and uncompromising on the subject. She persisted ever since in a political career that began with her knocking off one of the most ridiculous politicians to emerge from the tea party ranks, the former Cosmopolitan centerfold and doofus Massachusetts senator Scott Brown.
Warren’s chops as a national political figure have yet to be tested. Her self-immolating response to Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunting was a little Scott Brown–esque. And the videos kicking off her presidential run were risible. There are lessons to be learned from Trump’s successful 2016 primary campaign, and one of them is to avoid focus-group-tested pablum. Everything Warren says in her announcement video is worthwhile, but the words are drowned out by the incessant montages of her hugging people and the ostentatiously gerrymandered diversity of the anonymous Americans used as visual props.
Even worse was the widely ridiculed Instagram post in which Warren drinks a beer in her kitchen (also a setting for her announcement video), then acts surprised that her husband has turned up in their own house. When will politicians understand that voters immediately see through fake spontaneity and patronizing enactments of working-class “authenticity.” Trump proved that you could be elected president without drinking beer on camera. And besides, in the aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, what Democrat wants to see beer invoked in any political context ever again?