Is Donald Trump losing his agenda-setting power?

Published on Monday, 7 January 2019 16:42
Written by Daniel W. Drezner

Opinion

As the government shutdown drags on, it remains the case that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall is unpopular with the American people. But an argument can be made that even if Trump’s proposals are unpopular, he still benefits from escalating the conflict.

During the 2016 campaign, multiple observers made the case that Trump forced others to react to his pet issues by hammering them again and again. The same dynamic could be playing out now.

To put it another way, even if a majority of Americans disagree with the president about immigration - and they do, they really do - they are talking about immigration. Trump is starving parts of the government as leverage, even if he denies or fails to comprehend that this is what he is doing. This forces the conversation. It forces his political opponents into talking about border security when they would much rather talk about, say, health care.

This potentially allows Trump to claim that Americans believe immigration from Mexico is the most important problem, even if that is objectively false and the wall does little to address the problems that do exist at the border.

Indeed, over the weekend, Trump tweeted about an Associated Press-NORC poll stating that immigration was among the top concerns for 2019. The AP reported that “both Republicans and Democrats are far more likely to include immigration in their list of top issues facing the country this year compared with a year ago.”

This suggests that the shutdown has elevated immigration as an issue, especially given that post-midterms, pre-shutdown polls had immigration lower in the queue.

That said, even the AP-NORC poll had immigration as only the third-most important issue. Furthermore, both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics show a pretty clear spike in Trump’s unpopularity as the shutdown has dragged on. Is it possible that, after 18 months as a candidate and two years as president, Trump’s ability to set the agenda has been compromised?

No less a Trump supporter than Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., inadvertently hinted at this truth on Sunday, as the Hill reported: “There will not be progress on negotiations to end the partial government shutdown ‘as long as the radical left is in charge.’ Graham suggested during an interview on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ that Republicans are being forced to negotiate with Democrats who are being unreasonable in their demands.”

I’m not interested in fact-checking Graham’s claim of whether Democrats are making unreasonable demands. I am interested, however, in Graham’s acknowledgment that there are now other power centers in Washington. With Democrats in control of the House, other actors have the capacity to set the agenda.

And this brings us to new House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. She was at the epicenter of two stories this past week. One of them involves a faux controversy about dancing and is extremely silly. The other, however, involves her “60 Minutes” interview and is way more substantive. The part of that clip that let a thousand policy conversations bloom was her comments about progressive taxation. Sure, it gave the vapors to Republican Grover Norquist, but that is not terribly interesting. Liberal outfits such as ThinkProgress also noted about the proposed Green New Deal that “neither Ocasio-Cortez nor its other supporters probably have enough of a grasp on the details to determine how much money they would have to raise” to implement the deal, but even that is not super-interesting.

What is super-interesting is that, over the weekend, pundits and politicians were debating the merits of more-progressive taxation almost as much as they were talking about immigration. This was not a conversation that Trump started, and I doubt that it is one he relished. But it is now part of the policy conversation. Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated an ability to set the agenda in a manner similar to Trump. A Democrat suggested a substantial tax hike, and the result was not bipartisan calumny but rather vigorous debate.

Last week, veteran NBC national security reporter Bill Arkin left NBC News, sending out a parting shot to his colleagues, warning that because of NBC’s “hostage status as prisoners of Donald Trump,” the news media misses a lot of news. As a professional curmudgeon, Arkin probably would have issues with Ocasio-Cortez as well. But I wonder if he would like the fact that Trump no longer has a monopoly on agenda-setting in D.C.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.



Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Monday, 7 January 2019 16:42. Updated: Monday, 7 January 2019 16:44.