Do They Not Know He’ll Betray Them?

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET on February 2, 2023

House Republicans are preparing for a big confrontation with the Biden White House over the debt ceiling—a confrontation that could, if played wrong, collapse the U.S. financial system and drag down the world economy. President Joe Biden has been preparing for this fight since 2011, the last time Republicans tried a similar trick. That year, the doomsday device was switched off seconds before it detonated by an agreement on a sequester that automatically cut spending on defense and domestic programs with little regard to merits. Even so, the S&P rating agency downgraded U.S. debt below triple A for the first time, and the stock markets spasmed. The sequester was ultimately jettisoned by Republicans during the Trump years.

Have the House Republicans planned more carefully this time? Have they figured all the angles? In particular, have they taken into account the near-infinite capacity for treachery and backstabbing of the once and maybe future leader of their party, Donald Trump?

Trump announced his 2024 candidacy back in November. For weeks, he’s done nothing much about it, but in the past few days, Trump has emerged again. Last week, he made speeches in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He hit familiar notes of racial and cultural resentment. He denounced critical race theory and “left-wing gender ideology.” He proposed that parents should elect school principals. You know what he did not talk about? Cutting the federal budget.

[David Frum: Biden laid the trap. Trump walked into it.]

Trump’s never been a fiscal-discipline guy. In 2016, he repeatedly promised never to tamper with Social Security or Medicare. That was one promise he kept while in office. Now his party is rushing to create a crisis over exactly the issues from which he distanced himself. If all goes well for Republicans, Trump may be happy to scoop up the credit. But if things begin to go badly …

Recall the Republicans who campaigned in 2022 on Trump’s grievances over the 2020 election. After so many of them lost, what did Trump do? He turned on some of the very people he himself had endorsed. On his social-media platform, he said of a Trump loyalist who had lost a Senate race in New Hampshire: “Don Bolduc was a very nice guy, but he lost tonight when he disavowed, after his big primary win, his longstanding stance on Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Primary. Had he stayed strong and true, he would have won, easily. Lessons Learned!!!”

Trump even more triumphantly heaped scorn on candidates who had expressed a preference for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over him, such as Joe O’Dea, who lost a Senate race in Colorado. Trump ridiculed O’Dea, but the real target of his derision was DeSantis. “Will they ever learn their lesson? You can’t win without MAGA!”

Republican Party elites have drifted toward DeSantis. Yet Trump remains the clear favorite among the Republican rank and file, maintaining a 15-to-20-point lead on DeSantis in the latest Morning Consult polling. While DeSantis avoids tangling with Trump, Trump cheerfully insults “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

Trump’s going to be on the prowl for ways to elevate himself and disqualify alternatives. If the polls go negative for Kevin McCarthy & Co. in the impending drama, they should brace themselves for Trump to demean and disparage them. He will show no party loyalty. He will want to say that he alone is smart, that everybody else is stupid, and that no issue—not the budget, not anything—should take priority over Trump, Trump, Trump.

[Read: The logic behind Biden’s refusal to negotiate the debt ceiling]

In November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained his party’s disappointing showing in the 2022 midterms. Voters felt, he said, that Republicans “were not dealing with issues in a responsible way and we were spending too much time on negativity and attacks and chaos. They were frightened and so they pulled back.” His House colleagues have responded to that astute critique with even less responsibility, even harsher negativity, and even more frightening chaos. Maybe that’ll work better for them this time. If not, watch for Trump to head the blame parade, to aggrandize himself by betraying them.

They should see it coming. They never do.

This article originally stated that Joe O’Dea lost a Senate race in Ohio. In fact, he ran for Senate in Colorado.



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