Two men, sons of immigrants, rising to be the head of their own empires, powerful forces in their ethnic communities. Both dapper and mustachioed with commanding personalities. And both wielding a potent influence on the children who learned at their knees and followed them into the family businesses.
But here’s the difference: Big Tommy D’Alesandro Jr. taught little Nancy how to count. Fred Trump taught Donald, from the time he was a baby, that he didn’t have to count — or be accountable; Daddy’s money made him and buoyed him.
Fred, a dictatorial builder in Brooklyn and Queens from German stock, and Big Tommy, a charming Maryland congressman and mayor of Baltimore from Italian stock, are long gone. But their roles in shaping Donald and Nancy remain vivid, bleeding into our punishing, pressing national debate over immigration, a government shutdown and that inescapable and vexing Wall.
At this fraught moment when the pain of the shutdown is kicking in, President Trump and Speaker Pelosi offer very different visions — shaped by their parents — of what it means to be an American.
When Trump gave his Oval Office address, the framed photo of his dad was peering over his shoulder. In her House speaker’s office in the Capitol, Pelosi prominently displays a photo of herself at 7, holding the Bible as her father is sworn in as Baltimore mayor in 1947.
D’Alesandro was a loyal New Deal Democrat, just as Pelosi — the first daughter to follow her father into Congress — is a resolute liberal. She grew up in a house with portraits of F.D.R. and Truman.
Donald Trump spent most of his life as a political opportunist, learning from his dad that real estate developers must lubricate both sides of the aisle. Trump was once friendly with Pelosi, sending her a note in 2007 when she won the speaker job the first time — with a boost from his $20,000 donation to the party — calling her “the best.” (Unlike with “Cryin’ Chuck,” Trump has not gone for the jugular with a nasty nickname for Pelosi.)
In her memoir, Pelosi recalled that her Catholic parents “raised me to be holy.” She told me, “My mother and my father instilled in us, public service is a noble calling” and “never measure a person by how much money they had.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday left open the possibility of House action to punish Rep. Steve King over his history of inflammatory remarks as the Iowa Republican’s recent defense of white nationalism created a firestorm.
King, who won a ninth term in Congress in November, lamented in an interview with the New York Times that the term had become a pejorative one.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King said in the interview, which was published Thursday.
King later issued a statement and addressed the issue in a speech on the House floor Friday in which he sought to walk back his remarks. He said he rejects “those labels and the evil ideology that they define” and proclaimed himself “simply a Nationalist.”
A number of Democrats are calling on House leaders to consider a resolution to censure King, a vote that would put Republicans on record.
.. King’s interview prompted a rebuke from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, who said in a tweet Thursday morning, “These comments are abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse.”
She was soon followed by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who told reporters in a pen-and-pad that it was “offensive to try to legitimize those terms.” But Scalise also praised King’s later statement.
“I think it was important that he rejected that kind of evil, because that’s what it is. It’s evil ideology,” Scalise said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also issued a statement Thursday evening in which he sharply criticized King’s comments to the Times.
“Everything about white supremacy and white nationalism goes against who we are as a nation,” McCarthy said. “Steve’s language is reckless, wrong, and has no place in our society. The Declaration of Independence states that ‘all men are created equal.’ That is a fact. It is self-evident.”
Both McCarthy and Scalise were silent in October when asked for comment on incendiary remarks King had made then. At the time, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was the only member of House GOP leadership to rebuke King. (Cheney had not yet been elected to her position as conference chair.)
How did we get into this sorry situation? A meltdown of this magnitude typically has many causes. In this case, the president’s inability to reach some sort of deal rests heavily on several basic failures of understanding by him and his team. These include:
1. A failure to grasp how divided government works. The president somehow came to believe that he’d have more leverage once the Democrats took control of the House. Maybe someone convinced him that, after the transfer of power, he could shift blame for the impasse onto Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a favorite villain of Republicans. Or maybe he assumed that Pelosi & Company would fold in the face of the dysfunction and public outcry a shutdown would bring. Whatever the logic, Team Trump assumed Democrats would become more pliable, and a deal would emerge.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has been spoiled by two years of Congress being led by weak-kneed members of his party who, even when troubled by his excesses, largely let him run amok, lest he call down upon them the wrath of the Republican base.
But for their part, Ms. Pelosi and her new majority are concerned about presenting a united front against Mr. Trump’s challenges to constitutional authority. With the president’s wall having become a flash point, the political costs to Democrats for cutting a deal seen as advantageous to Mr. Trump would be steep.
2. A failure to understand the costs of playing only to the base. While Republican lawmakers may be awed by Mr. Trump’s command of their party’s troops, Democrats are more motivated by the fact that the bulk of the electorate is tired of the president’s divisive demagogy. Time and again, Mr. Trump has chosen partisanship over leadership, doing nothing to expand his appeal. This puts him at a disadvantage in wooing the public to his side of the wall debate.
3. A failure to understand Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, Mr. Trump never got around to reading “The Art of War,” or at least not Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know your enemy.” If he had, the president would have tried to develop at least a basic working relationship with Ms. Pelosi. The White House clearly assumed that, at some point — maybe after she secured the speaker’s gavel — Ms. Pelosi would bend to Mr. Trump’s will. But the speaker is not impressed with bluster. She is seldom cowed by political pressure from her own team, much less the opposing one. She plays the long game, and her will is as formidable as Mr. Trump’s, possibly more so. One key difference: Ms. Pelosi knows how the legislative process works.
Democrats shouldn’t put themselves in a fiscal straitjacket.On Thursday, the best House speaker of modern times reclaimed her gavel, replacing one of the worst. It has taken the news media a very long time to appreciate the greatness of Nancy Pelosi, who saved Social Security from privatization, then was instrumental in gaining health insurance for 20 million Americans. And the media are still having a hard time facing up to the phoniness of their darling Paul Ryan, who, by the way, left office with a 12 percent favorable rating.
There’s every reason to expect that Pelosi will once again be highly effective. But some progressive Democrats object to one of her initial moves — and on the economics, and probably the politics, the critics are right.
.. The issue in question is “paygo,” a rule requiring that increases in spending be matched by offsetting tax increases or cuts elsewhere.
You can argue that as a practical matter, the rule won’t matter much if at all. On one side, paygo is the law, whether Democrats put it in their internal rules or not. On the other side, the law can fairly easily be waived, as happened after the G.O.P.’s huge 2017 tax cut was enacted.
But adopting the rule was a signal of Democratic priorities — a statement that the party is deeply concerned about budget deficits and willing to cramp its other goals to address that concern. Is that a signal the party should really be sending?
.. Furthermore, there are things the government should be spending money on even when jobs are plentiful — things like fixing our deteriorating infrastructure and helping children get education, health care and adequate nutrition. Such spending has big long-run payoffs, even in purely monetary terms.
Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow money very cheaply — the interest rate on inflation-protected 10-year bonds is only about 1 percent. These low borrowing costs, in turn, reflect what seems to be a persistent savings glut — that is, the private sector wants to save more than it’s willing to invest, even with very low interest rates.
Or consider what happened after Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act, going to great lengths to pay for the additional benefits with tax increases and spending cuts. A majority of voters still believed that it increased the deficit. Reality doesn’t seem to matter.
.. Anyway, the truth is that while voters may claim to care about the deficit, hardly any of them really do. For example, does anyone still believe that the Tea Party uprising was a protest against deficits? From the beginning, it was basically about race — about the government spending money to help Those People. And that’s true of a lot of what pretends to be fiscal conservatism.
.. In fact, even the deficit scolds who played such a big role in Beltway discourse during the Obama years seem oddly selective in their concerns about red ink. After all those proclamations that fiscal doom was coming any day now unless we cut spending on Social Security and Medicare, it’s remarkable how muted their response has been to a huge, budget-busting tax cut. It’s almost as if their real goal was shrinking social programs, not limiting national debt.
.. So am I saying that Democrats should completely ignore budget deficits? No; if and when they’re ready to move on things like some form of Medicare for All, the sums will be so large that asking how they’ll be paid for will be crucial.