The start of any week in Washington is as unpredictable as a Super Bowl. Before Sunday night’s game, everyone thought the Broncos and Seahawks would have a close one and by the third quarter the Seahawks had so dominated the action, it became necessary to thumb through the rule book to see if pro football had a mercy rule. Traffic from Fort Lee, N.J., is more free-flowing than the Broncos offense. Who knows where the week will end up, but here are three questions worth noodling as it starts:
1. Chris Christie: Does going on offense reinforce negative views of the governor? Monday at 7 p.m. Gov. Chris Christie will take to the airwaves for his regular “Ask the Governor” segment. Will he go after his critics in the forceful way his aides have or will he try to stay above the fray?
David Wildstein was the Port Authority official who ordered the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, so when he says he has a version of events that contradicts Christie, it creates tremors. But Wildstein’s revelations could be damaging or they could be a bluff. We don’t have any evidence yet. Even if we did, the charges he’s apparently leveling don’t go to the big political issue in the scandal: Whether Christie ordered the lane closures as political retribution or whether he knew about it. Wildstein is silent on this point. What he is saying is that he can contradict what Christie has said about the lane closures once they were under way. If there is a discrepancy, that could further damage the governor’s credibility, but right now we wait and see. But Christie isn’t waiting. His team put out an exfoliating attack against Wildstein on Saturday, questioning his motives and charging that he’s simply trying to save his own hide. In questioning his character, they reached back to his high-school years. (So then why was he entrusted with the Port Authority job in the first place?)
The Christie posture since the scandal broke has been to focus on getting work done. There were a few caustic comments from his team about MSNBC’s bias, which broke the story about the Hoboken mayor who says she was pressured to approve a development project, but that’s it. This response to Wildstein is an escalation. If others come forward to protect themselves and receive the same pounding, the pattern of Christie throwing punches at former friends and allies could become politically damaging in itself—particularly if Christie starts engaging in it himself. In attacking the character of former aides it raises questions about why people whose low character was obvious since high school were on your team. It also might convey the overall impression that when the governor is unhappy he goes after those that make him so. That’s a risky impression to court when the larger question is whether the governor knew anything about an overreaction by his political team to a perceived slight.
2. GOP infighting: How fast do we get to questioning motives? There are many dangers to inner-party fights—they waste time, they draw attention from highlighting your opponent’s flaws, and they often don’t lead to productive legislative results. One of the big downsides is when combatants start questioning each other’s motives. That takes a policy debate and turns it into a personal fight where people lock in and get emotional. The resulting attacks hand your opponents powerful sound bites they can use against you.
This is what happened during the government shutdown when Republican senators claimed Sen. Ted Cruz had “tricked the grass roots” to raise his profile for his presidential run. The charge was an insult to grass-roots conservatives, suggesting they were morons to be led around by the nose, and it was an attack on Cruz’s character. When House Speaker John Boehner suggested grass-roots lobbying groups in Washington were fooling the rank and file over the Ryan-Murray budget just to raise money, it was a similar personal attack.
Since then, the skirmishing on the right has been mild. The Ryan-Murray budget, the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, and the farm bill all passed the House without too much clubhouse fighting. (The ugly personal stuff has been left to Greta Van Susteren and Erick Erickson.) Now comes the conservative conversation about immigration. The issue is so fraught that Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and the editors of the National Review said Republicans shouldn’t touch it for fear they will waste their energy fighting each other and not exploiting the weaknesses of Obamacare. We know it will be a heated debate, but will it be heated in a debilitating personal way that reignites the full fury of the personal war between the populists and establishment? Or, will the recent tactical restraint over budget fights prevail in an election year when Republicans have a shot at taking control of the Senate?
3. Will Obama wimp out on trade? The administration is boasting about all the ways the president can take direct action to get around Republicans in the House. He’ll do anything he can to get the economy going. He has both a pen and a phone. One thing he could do to help the economy is to fight for authority to make trade deals without congressional interference. It is within his power to do so and has little to do with congressional Republicans who support the idea. But he may not reach for the phone—or at least he won’t engage with the gusto he’s putting toward far smaller items he outlined in the State of the Union. Trade promotion authority, sometimes known as “fast-track,” is the necessary requirement to finalize the trade discussions with Pacific Rim countries that are currently moving along briskly and the European trade deal that’s in a far earlier stage of the process. The administration argues that both will give a real boost to the economy.
Trade is always a tough issue for Democrats. Unions worry this will threaten their workers and environmentalists worry it will lead to greater damage to the planet. “Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Some Democrats are making the argument similar to the one Republicans are on immigration: Let’s not have this ugly fight in the party during an election year when we should be fighting with the other side. Perhaps, but the Obama administration has argued that these trade deals will help the economy, so the sooner the better. The question is: Will politics win out? U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough have been lobbying lawmakers, but lobbyists for business and politicians who support free trade in both parties are asking for more direct pressure from the president. Will Obama make the push? Given how comfortable Democrats are bucking him, would it matter if he did?
I asked Obama's top economic adviser Jason Furman how important it was to have trade promotion authority pass in 2014 in order to achieve the best result with ongoing trade deals. “What’s important is that as Ambassador Froman is negotiating with our partners that he can make it very clear to them that as we’re asking for concessions from other countries that we’re going to be able to deliver and implement those agreements in the United States and that's why it is important to strengthen our hand of our negotiator by having forward momentum,” he said.
Momentum toward authority is different than authority. No one thinks the promise of a congressional vote has the leverage-making power of an actual deal. “Very few of our U.S. trading partners are going to come to the table with their best offer if it is still possible that the United States Congress could come along and undermine that deal,” says Bill Frenzel, trade expert at the Brookings Institution and a former member of Congress. “If the president signs off on an agreement and he doesn’t have TPA, he won’t be signing off on the best agreement we can get.” Rather, the administration appears to be pre-emptively trying to finesse the practical impact of the stall in Congress and the limited power the president has to change the situation in an election year. That suggests trade authority is something that is going to remain on the president’s wish list for a time to come.