Who believed that “great negotiator” stuff in the first place? Who? Anybody with half a critical mind and an attention span longer than a gerbil's could figure out in 2016 that Donald Trump was no master negotiator. If he won negotiations, it was because he lied more than the other side. But usually, as time went on, he lost.
But win or lose, in all those negotiations over air rights and concrete prices and how much on the dollar he’d pay contractors he’d cheated, he was operating in a world where the scrutiny wasn’t intense and the law was only haphazardly actually enforced. A world where you could bluff and delay and make the people suing you take a number. You can agree to settlements, pay money, admit no wrongdoing, and skate to the next disaster.
That’s not the world when you’re president. When you’re president, believe it or not, your word has to be good. You have to have some basis for saying Mexico will pay for your wall. And—and thank God this is still true—you have to have public opinion on your side.
Which, on this wall question, Trump does not. Bill Clinton won the 1995-96 shutdown against Newt Gingrich not because he was nicer or better-looking. He won because public opinion was on his side on the question of the proposed domestic spending cuts at issue. For all the noise and bullshit, the substance still matters.
So now look at this mess. What a joke. He is so crazy out of his league. It turns out that the guy who “knows more” than the generals and goes on instinct and can’t read a sentence of policy analysis and sits there while policy aides are trying to talk wondering what they’re saying about him on Fox is as laughably bad at this job as millions of us knew he would be.
And this shutdown wasn’t even his worst negotiation humiliation of the week. In fact, wasn’t close to worst! The worst was hearing Recep Tayyip Erdogan say hey, we’re coming after those Kurds finally, you better get out of our way, and after hanging up the phone deciding... to get out of his way!
Can you imagine? The president of the United States of America hearing that semi-threat (we don’t know how it was conveyed tonally, but the point of the words is clear enough) and caving? To the president of Turkey? Can you imagine if Obama had done that? They’d be having impeachment hearings this week. And I must say, not without some justification.
Yes, Trump is an isolationist, to the extent he can be credited with having a worldview, and he spoke of Syria withdrawal months ago. But any American president getting that call is supposed to go “hmmm.” He is definitely not supposed to go “OK then!” Instinct, baby. The art of the deal.
Now, the Republicans. The main media narrative of the week is that they’re finally separating from him, mostly because of the sometimes harsh criticism of him over the Syria withdrawal.
That’s true. But let’s look at the shutdown negotiations. The House passed the $5 billion that Trump wanted. And Friday, after meeting with Trump, Mitch McConnell said he was for the House/Trump bill. He is lined up, in other words, to parrot Trump’s line that this is a “Democrat shutdown.”
But again, that wasn’t even the worst thing the Senate Republicans did this week. That was passing the criminal justice reform bill.
Why was that bad? Tomasky, that was a rare and blessed bipartisan triumph! Well, yes and no.
This criminal justice reform bill has been kicking around on Capitol Hill for years. President Obama wanted badly to pass it. Loads of bipartisan discussions were held on it in the Obama White House. To his credit, Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, supported it. In 2015, Grassley and Dick Durbin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, reached a deal. The bill was voted out of the Judiciary Committee 15-5. But from there, it went nowhere.
This year, the more-or-less-the-same bill was voted out of the same committee 16-5. There were some changes, yes. Some of those changes made it more conservative, but other changes made it more liberal (the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity was reduced from 100:1 to 18:1).
But the bill that passed the committee 15-5 in 2015 got nowhere, while the bill that passed the committee 16-5 this year, mirabile dictu, got to the floor for a vote.
Hmmm, what was different?
What was different was simply that Barack Obama wasn’t president and Donald Trump was. There was no way Mitch McConnell was going to allow a vote on the bill while Obama was president, give Obama that kind of victory. But he gave it to Trump.
So no, they’re not “standing up” to Trump. They are where they always are: party first, country second. And now, they’re following Donald down the shutdown hole.
I hope and think that this was finally the week when your average, pay-little-attention, hey-when’s-the-Charm’s-Blow-Pop-Bowl-on segment of our citizenry finally got the message that their president is a dangerous nincompoop. The Syria cave-in was strike one. The Jim Mattis departure was strike two. And now we have this shutdown, entirely the product of a president who has no idea what he’s doing and no ability at all to get adversaries to meet him even one-quarter of the way. It’s a humiliating week to be an American, but one hopes also a clarifying one.