Julian Zelizer: Extreme partisanship won't end because of Washington's fiscal shift to help Hurricane Harvey victims
Congress will still have to contend with Trump's erratic behavior and hardline stance on issues like North Korea, Russia and immigration, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
There are some journalists and politicians who hope that the one bright spot from the disaster of Hurricane Harvey will be a shift to better politics this coming fall.
Writing for the New York Times, Carl Hulse makes a strong case that the hurricane “utterly transformed the federal fiscal picture” since Congress must now focus on providing federal relief to the communities affected by the storm. Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, the head of the Freedom Caucus, has said that at least for the time being his group of legislators would not insist on the money President Donald Trump wants to build a border wall.
In the Washington Post, Sen. John McCain urged Congress to restore order by passing a budget that “realistically meets the nation’s critical needs.” Some congressional Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan, are urging the President to resist the controversial proposal to dismantle the DACA program that allows undocumented young adults, who came here as children, to stay in the country, be educated and have work authorization.
But the odds are extremely poor that the horrific storm will fundamentally alter the explosive political dynamics in Washington.
Let’s remember that even the horrendous terrorist attacks against the United States on 9/11 only dampened political tensions for a few weeks before Washington resumed its fighting ways. Democrats and Republicans were battling over how to strengthen airport security, with Republicans attempting to use a privatized work force and Democrats insisting on public employees with civil service protections.
The 2002 midterm campaigns and then the 2004 presidential campaign witnessed vicious attacks from some Republicans against Democrats for being “weak” against terrorism.
This fall, the situation won’t be any different. While we might avoid a total government meltdown, that standard sets the bar very low.
As for the rest, the outlook is not bright. The most important reason that we should not expect things to change is because of President Trump. We are not going to see any dramatic shift in his presidential style as a result of this disaster. The erratic behavior that he has exhibited since January, even in difficult moments such as the standoff with North Korea, and the basic political positions that he holds dearly, including his hardline anti-immigration stance, won’t go away.
Even as this crisis in Texas unfolded we saw many instances when President Trump was acting in familiar ways.
Right as the nation was glued to television sets watching the storm approach, he pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and released his order banning the military from recruiting transgender Americans. He conducted a campaign style-event in Texas, focused as much on the crowd’s size as on federal relief, and on Friday he was back to tweeting about how James Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email.
The Washington Post published a story about how the President is bristling about the disloyalty of advisers who have been critical of him and how he has become frustrated with Chief of Staff John Kelly’s efforts to contain him.
As the nation learned this morning of the North Koreans having conducted a test of what they claimed was a hydrogen bomb, the president quickly returned to the provocative tweets. ” South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
Not only will the immediate crisis of the hurricane subside, but the challenges with the relief effort will become more difficult during the cleanup in the coming months. There could also be more storms on the way. Hurricane Irma may be the next disaster to hit the US.
Trump will continue to insert himself in an aggressive manner, threatening wavering senators and blasting his opponents.
His upcoming push for a steep, regressive corporate tax cut and his instructions to have federal agencies not enforce the Affordable Care Act will trigger immense controversy and fuel partisan divisions. Tension with North Korea, Iran, ISIS and Russia will continue to flare – enticing Trump to make more provocative remarks and decisions. The Russia scandal, the issue that angers him more than almost anything else, is still very much alive. Robert Mueller’s investigation is intensifying as he is working with the New York State attorney general as well as the IRS. The New York Times has reported that Mueller is in possession of a memo from Trump in which he outlined, to the consternation of his counsel, exactly why he wanted to fire James Comey. As each of these stories, and others, develop, Trump’s divisive behavior and positions will return to the fore.
The Freedom Caucus might agree to let the border wall funding go for now, but the caucus is not going away. This is crucial since it has been the driving source of gridlock in Washington. The caucus has insisted on containing federal spending to draconian levels and a push for sweeping deregulations of the economy and climate – and its members have been willing to go to the mat to achieve their objectives using whatever means necessary. The caucus might budge on this instance of big government spending but once that relief package is off the table, all the points of contention remain.
And as we enter the fall, the November 2018 elections are coming into clearer focus. All across the nation, candidates are starting to go out on the campaign trail. Democrats understand that this is probably their best opportunity to retake control of Congress or severely cut into the size of the Republican’s majority. With the President’s approval ratings being so low, Democrats don’t have much of a reason to work with the GOP. After Charlottesville, many Democrats will feel it to be that much more difficult to compromise with President Trump.
It’s a miscalculation to predict that Hurricane Harvey will produce an era of good feelings in Washington. We have suffered through many worse crises only to see how deeply entrenched our political divisions are. In this case, we add to the mix a President whose fundamental modes of behavior are so defining of those divisions, so there is no evidence to expect any fundamental changes are on the way.
If Trump wants to really break from the partisan polarization and his own pattern of behavior, he needs to do something really bold that shifts the dynamics in DC.
To show that he is serious about changing, President Trump and members of the Freedom Caucus should propose an increase rather than decrease – as they had planned – to FEMA funding. They should provide money and manpower to an EPA, which handles the environmental component of the weather patterns we are seeing, that they planned to deplete.That would be a much more serious signal of change than President Trump shaking the right hands or showing empathy.