How the Safest Bet on Bipartisanship Became A Trap

How the Safest Bet on Bipartisanship Became A Trap

Early in the morning after the 2020 election it was clear there was not going to be a big blue wave in the Senate. Instead, the arithmetic looked right for a Georgia runoff battle for a 50-50 split in the upper house:

And indeed, that is what we got.

I thought Ossoff might have squeaked out a win, given that the state narrowly went for Biden. He didn’t, but Purdue didn’t get over 50% either, which in Georgia spells runoff. Raphael Warnock, who is senior pastor at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, is running against Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in the other race.

Traditionally, Republicans do well in runoffs in Georgia. However, this race is fundamentally different. First, we’ve just watched Georgia turn blue — a big win for activists there, and a testament to the organizational talent of Stacey Abrams. Secondly, the outcome will determine who controls the Senate, with all the expected implications in terms of national attention.

In other words, this is a fight that both parties will commit nearly unlimited resources to winning. Will Republicans, dispirited from a loss, mount enough enthusiasm to turn up in a runoff? Will Democrats become susceptible to complacency after their win? How will the events of the interregnum factor into the argumentation on both sides?

As Robert Costa noted, it looked like these questions and Georgia itself would become the center of the political universe:

In any normal political season, it would have been so.

Instead, enter the bizarre world of the non-transition transition.

Surprising absolutely no one, Trump has refused to concede and is waging a messy and protracted fight. I don't say messy figuratively; I think Rudy Giuliani might have melted on television the other day.

On top of that, Trump has been on a firing spree, starting with his Secretary of Defense via tweet. We had an early warning siren with reporting focused on Esper’s likely support for renaming Confederate military bases — something Trump has signaled he would fight.

This immediately brought into question the fate of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA has traditionally been almost autonomic. It is the legislation that sets the budget for the Department of Defense, as well as broad policies governing how money is spent. It has a 59 year record of being passed on time — the safest bipartisan bet you can make. So safe in fact, almost no one I’ve talked to about it had much clue what would happen if it isn’t passed.

Why am I asking? Because Esper’s 11th hour concern with legacy, paired with looming fights in Georgia, creates a perfect political trap (scroll down until you see the bull).

The base renaming issue is a red flag to wave in front of that most predicable of bulls, Donald Trump. His political instincts do not lend to turning down opportunities for symbolic fights. Generating negative press attention in Trumpworld is a feature, not a bug. So, the bait is clear.

Let’s expand on the “trap” referenced in the tweet. If Trump stages a fight, he will hand talking points to Georgia Democrats on civil rights and race. Do not forget that one of the Democratic challengers literally holds Martin Luther King Jr.’s chair at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Secondly, while we don’t have as complete model as we should about what happens if NDAA doesn’t pass (it is a little hard to calculate around that sixty year precedent being broken) we do know that it will disrupt normal policy business.

Also, there is no doubt that this policy will be accomplished no matter what Trump does. So Democrats can argue the following:

  • On pure vanity, Trump is fruitlessly making an issue out of race…
  • …in defiance of his own former Secretary of Defense
  • …at the expense of further unnecessary confusion and chaos
  • …harming our national security as he decapitates the Department of Defense

The Republican candidates then have two choices:

  • Distance themselves from Trump, thereby alienating his considerable and devoted following and risking Trump’s wrath, or…
  • Embrace Trump, and make themselves less palatable to independents and risk further energizing Democrat voters who feel strongly about the issue

Being on the horns of a dilemma is never easy; less so when you have a race for the legislative future of the country on your mind and a short period to determine your strategy. Good board for Democrats, indeed.

In terms of Republican counter-argumentation, I would expect most of the heavy lifting to be done through media framing. Expect headlines like "Dems threaten military pay raises over Confederate base renaming." Note: it is unclear if not passing NDAA actually will impact pay raises, but some reporting has already advanced the idea. The problem with that narrative is that Trump's own Secretary of Defense fell on his sword for the policy. Early surveys of service members show they largely support the change. Capable debaters will make hay from such flimsy framing.

What is the alternative to Trump falling for the trap? It got a little science-fictional:

There is a mistake in the tweet above, though. There is no such thing as a Trumpian Gom Jabbar. See, if he reacts out of instinct to the threat, he will hurt Republican prospects in the Senate and it’ll have consequences —wait, sorry, I’m already laughing. He doesn’t really care about that.

The party will already lay their woes at his feet. He almost surely plans to be a perennial outsider (even within his own party) and go to halfhearted war with Republicans he will inevitably accuse of betrayal. The marginal cost of more mainstream Republican angst isn’t a cost at all. It is exactly the stuff that will fuel Trump TV.

Unlike Paul Atriedes, who will die if he gives in to reflex, Trump will merely be stung by a tiny bee named Mitch McConnell and Republicans who still care about power and not just media spotlight. He stands to add Republican bile to liberal tears in the toxic brew of whatever comes next for him.

So, no, Trump isn’t likely to suddenly care about things like Senate majorities. Less so when he won’t be president. What would he do if he did care? That scenario is very simple: Trump would just let the NDAA pass as the boring piece of non-news it usually is. He gives up a news cycle and his Republican colleagues get cover on a bad issue for them.

But, he’s probably not going to give up that news cycle, is he?

Initially I thought Democrats would see the possibility of a trap, but might decide not to set it:

Things are different now. Republican lawmakers have shown no appetite to push back against the transition theatrics (except maybe Ben Sasse) and Trump is carrying on with wrecking the place.

If you’re a Democrat in national leadership, would you really be in the mood to take a banana peel out of Trump’s path?

The problem with staging existential political fights and breaking norms is that eventually your opponent will do the same thing. It is gross and unfortunate if Democrats now use the NDAA to hurt Trump and win the Senate. It isn’t how things are supposed to work.

There is a big however coming. In reality, it would take a combination of Cincinnatus and Jesus Christ to turn the other cheek on a fight with these kinds of stakes. The country doesn’t have a Roman statesman or JC; we have Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. And what does Nancy Pelosi say?

“This summer, the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis passed NDAAs with provisions to begin the process of changing the names of military bases and infrastructure named after individuals who served in the Confederacy. It is imperative that the conference report include provisions that secure this essential priority.  Our bases should reflect our highest ideals as Americans.” - November 18, 2020 Press Release

She hasn’t just set the trap. She put some peanut butter in it. The good kind, too. We’ll see what happens next.

In the meantime, expect more fretting about stupid election lawsuits. More TV melting, more theatrics. It really warrants a whole other blog piece, but if you haven't read Daniel Boorstin's 1962 classic "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America" – run out and do so. It is an eerily good map for our times, given that it was published 58 years ago.

So apart from the pseudo-event maelstrom, the clock on NDAA and a government shutdown will potentially run out while few are paying attention. And the races in Georgia will come closer. I recommend keeping an eye on both: they are important and intertwined indicators of where we're headed next as a country.

Let's hope for fewer banana peels and steadier hands.