armchair quarterbacking Chuck and Nancy

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer left the White House with a priceless quote from Donald Trump: 

 And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security … So I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.

It’s no surprise that after the meeting, Trump hopped around the West Wing flinging papers like Rumpelstiltskin. I also appreciate why people are expressing support and solidarity for Nancy Pelosi after she got talked over by the world’s most blatant sexist mansplainer.

Still, I thought the two senior Democrats talked like professional politicians in ways that are problematic.

  • Don’t say that you want to have the discussion in private. That looks like a shady preference for backroom deals. I understand that the future Speaker wanted to get a real deal that would keep the government open–thus helping millions of Americans–and she feared that Trump would back himself into a corner in a public argument, thus preventing a deal. Her motives were good. But you don’t say that you want to meet in private. If the meeting is going to be televised, you use it as a public debate about what is best for the country.
  • Don’t say “The Washington Post today gave you a lot of Pinocchios.” That creates a conflict between Trump and a media product (the Post’s Fact Checker feature) that many will not recognize and few will trust. Simply state that Trump has not built any of the wall. Dare him to claim that he has. Ask him what proportion of the 2,000 mile border he thinks he has already walled. 
  • Don’t get into a debate about whether the House should vote or not. Trump is right that his bill can’t pass the Senate without Democratic votes. Which body votes when is Inside Baseball. Stick to the substance. The wall is a bad idea and you will oppose it.
  • Don’t quip, “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.” Sen. Schumer knows that these are red states that the Republicans were expected to win. But he sounds like a New Yorker with contempt for two states in the Midwest. Or, at best, he sounds like a competitor in the sport of winning the most elections. The issue is the wall. Is it good or bad for America? Is it worth a government shutdown?
  • Don’t miss opportunities to score debating points. “I thought Mexico was going to pay for the wall, Mr President?” “Here’s a deal, Mr. President–you can say you already built the wall and we won’t have to pay for it.”

Perhaps I am asking for more rhetorical vim, and that’s not a fair demand of two consummate legislative tacticians. But I think I am also asking for leaders who talk to the American people as citizens rather than as spectators of the game of politics.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.