The New “Infrastructure Deal” is a Political Disaster
Why legislative tacticians make bad political leaders
In the past 24 hours four things of direct political importance to the ongoing saga of the Trump Maladministration have occurred:
(1) the Barr Justice Department, and the Trump administration more generally, has escalated its battle of wills with the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, refusing to comply with requests for information and for interviews, in clear violation of the law;
(2) Trump and his family members have filed a civil suit trying to block Deutsche bank from disclosing financial information that has been duly requested by House Committees;
(3) The New York Times reported that Robert Mueller sent a letter to Barr in late March objecting to Barr’s public statements about how the Mueller Report exonerated the President
(4) Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer met with President Trump in the White House, and agreed to the outlines of a plan for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
According to the Times: “Ms. Pelosi requested the meeting with Mr. Trump, in part to change the conversation from impeachment to infrastructure and to demonstrate that Democrats want to proceed with a policy agenda, and not merely with investigations of the president.”
Also according to the Times, Schumer was very happy that there was “good will” at the meeting, and that the President was willing to meet. His words are worth quoting: “In previous meetings, the president has said if these investigations continue, I can’t work with you. [But] He didn’t bring it up. I believe we can do both at once. The two are not mutually exclusive, and we were glad he didn’t make it that way.”
Re-read those statements by Pelosi and Schumer again.
Would it be consistent with my credentials as a political scientist of good professional standing to declare that these statements are craven and idiotic?
Let me be even clearer. Trump’s dangerous authoritarian tendencies have been on display for over two years. The Mueller investigation did not exonerate him. And in the face of the Mueller Report, Trump has lied about the Report; blatantly rejected any form of Congressional oversight; and waged a campaign of verbal violence against Mueller and against the Democrats, accusing them of “treason” and of attempting “a coup.”
The situation has become graver by the day. House Democrats are readying subpoenas. A number of very prominent Democrats have consistently denounced Trump’s flouting of constitutional democracy. Many have talked of impeachment, and among the Democratic presidential contenders, Elizabeth Warren, and now even Joe Biden, have seconded this talk.
And Schumer smiles because Trump deigns to meet with him after calling his party treasonous?
And Pelosi and Schumer want to “change the subject” and do a deal?
And Schumer declares that “investigation” of the constitutional violations and threats of this President, and “working together” with him, “are not mutually exclusive?”
This can only be true on one condition: that Schumer and Pelosi are not serious about either a real investigation or a real political response to the constitutional crisis.
And why should they be? They are conventional, time-serving politicians, and legislative tacticians who wouldn’t know political vision or inspiration if it jumped in their faces. They are, indeed, “institutionalists,” precisely the kind of people pundits wanted to delude themselves into thinking Barr was.
Barr is not an institutionalist. And Trump is an anti-institutionalist. And Trump is playing Schumer and Pelosi, and getting them to politically disarm in the face of his real political and constitutional vulnerability. He is sowing division among the Democrats. And he is making them complicit in mocking the very idea that Trump is an exceptionally terrible president who is a danger to democracy.
For Trump will do a deal, or at least pretend to, and they will go along, and what can be so bad about that? Infrastructure — who can be against that, right? And if it involves border walls, and detention centers, all the better. Right? Wrong!
It would be bad enough if Pelosi and Schumer were “bringing a knife to a gunfight”; but they are bringing nothing but a pencil and a smile. This is the way they “deal?”
Trump is a danger to democracy. I have argued that the Democrats should commence impeachment hearings, not because such hearings can remove Trump, but because if properly conducted they can weaken him and link to a broader campaign against him. I stand by this argument. But others favor more conventional Congressional investigations, and this too makes some sense. What does not make any political sense is the notion that one can conduct such investigations, in the fact of constant resistance and attack by Trump, and at the same time make nice with Trump.
Either the Democrats are in a political battle, now, to defeat a dangerous president, or they are not.
It is a good thing that Warren and Biden want to make an issue of Trump. Every serious Democratic leader should be making an issue of Trump.
Pelosi and Schumer are not serious political leaders. They are legislative leaders, of legislative caucuses, who have many times been safely re-elected in their districts, and who have mastered legislative tactics. But, as more broadly politically savvy House leaders — like senior members like Adam Schiff and junior members like AOC and Rashida Tlaib — know, we are now past the point of legislative log-rolling and business as usual.
The future of democracy is at stake. And Pelosi and Schumer are an embarrassment.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.