Few politicians are as interesting or fascinating as Donald Trump. From a gold-plated airline to mail-order steaks to pro wrestling storylines to family movie cameos, the New York billionaire has long captivated public attention. As he swung from venture to venture, his political persuasions also varied: Today’s outspoken basher of Obamacare once supported a Canadian-style single-payer healthcare system.
The GOP took a big gamble in uniting behind Trump, a political neophyte whose political position history was as varied and volatile as his net worth, and it looks like the party may have crapped out. Despite many months of excoriating Democrats, the President has just joined them in wanting to raise the federal debt ceiling, violating a key position of leading Republicans like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This is a tremendous blow to fiscal conservatives, who once thought that Trump might actually be an ally. Certainly, the commander-in-chief began his tenure in office declaring that he would slash civilian federal spending and make bureaucrats “tighten their belts.”
Awkwardly, small-government conservative Paul Ryan was forced to defend both his continued opposition to raising the debt ceiling and the President who abruptly overruled him, McConnell, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a White House meeting to side with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Ryan wants to maintain the debt ceiling as a tool of “fiscal discipline,” but acknowledged that President Trump wanted to have a freer hand to deal with the costs associated with Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.
Ryan and other congressional Republicans will have to decide whether to stick to their fiscal guns and appeal to traditional conservatives, or join the President in appealing to a more populist base. As with most other issues broached since January, the man in the Oval Office is not making things easy for his fellow party-mates. From controversial nominees to the Obamacare repeal to immigration reform, Trump has forced untold agonies on moderate Republicans, many of whom will be dreading the 2018 midterms.
If you’re a Republican who has stood firm with Trump thus far, Democrats will be waiting with glee, ready to tar you with every one of Trump’s controversies. If you’re a Republican who has opposed the President, the man’s radical Twitter feed could fire up his base against you and prompt a strong primary challenge. The debt ceiling switcheroo presents yet another monkey wrench for congressional Republicans to contend with. Criticize the President for siding with liberal Democrats like Schumer, or face the ire of fiscal conservatives by applauding the debt ceiling hike?
Of course, the pain isn’t just felt by the GOP. Democrats themselves must figure out how to proceed. With Republican Rep. Steve King (NY) describing the meeting between Trump and Schumer as a “love-in,” Dems must decide whether or not to change their tune toward the President they love to hate. With many Democrats describing themselves as the “Resistance” against Trump, deciding whether or not to give the President kudos for seeing the light on the debt ceiling will be a tough call. Any perceived praise toward Trump could be criticized by other Democrats and invite a primary challenge.
On the other hand, some Democrats are loathe to pass up a chance to try and win over the President. You catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes, so a bit of flattery and praise might be the key to winning concessions from the President who famously loves the adoration of the crowd. If Trump is feeling no love from the GOP, he might accept Democrats’ kind words with generosity. While left-wingers like Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren would not be caught dead saying positive things about Donald Trump, conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Heidi Heitkamp may seize the chance to make inroads with Trump’s blue-collar base.
Coming at the same time as Hillary Clinton’s controversial book tour, the stress over responding to Trump’s liberal turn on the debt ceiling could cause fresh heartburn for the struggling Democratic Party. Has the President won over more Democrats than he has lost Republicans? In the coming political shake-up, both parties will be jockeying for advantage, feeling out the loyalties of members and striving for unified responses.
The net result of Trump’s unexpected turn on the debt ceiling could be determined by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. The worse the destruction, and the greater the need for federal aid, the more justified and wise Trump’s debt decision will seem. Ryan and McConnell will seem cruel in comparison, wanting to limit government spending at a time when Floridians need to rebuild. Democrats, especially in a swing state like Florida, will feel obligated to praise the President (even if begrudgingly) for keeping the federal coffers available. Natural disasters, tragic and horrifying, provide even the most controversial and unpopular presidents with chances to look presidential.