President Donald Trump's reelection chances are, um — how to put this — not great right now. The Economist's model gives him only a 10% chance of winning the electoral college. FiveThirtyEight is only marginally more optimistic, giving him a 17% chance, his lowest odds of the entire campaign. Pennsylvania is viewed as the tipping-point state to get Joe Biden over 270, and a Monmouth poll released Tuesday gives him a lead from 8 to 11 points depending on turnout. That poll is not really an outlier, either. Even columnists who have been hedging on the possibility of a Trump comeback are starting to write things that suggest a blowout.
At this moment, with the president badly behind, one would expect him to do whatever it takes to climb back into contention against Biden. One of the things would be a massive fiscal stimulus package that his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for well over a month. Trump advocated for this in ALL CAPS just a few days ago. So have the IMF and Fed Chair Jay Powell.
And yet, according to my Washington Post colleagues Erica Werner and Jeff Stein, the president has decided to walk away from negotiations with Democrats:
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"In a series of tweets posted less than 24 hours after he was released from the hospital, Trump accused Pelosi of failing to negotiate in good faith, after she rejected an opening bid from Mnuchin in their latest round of talks....
" 'I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hard-working Americans and Small Business,' Trump wrote.
"The pronouncement was so stunning that Pelosi told Democratic colleagues on a conference call that the president's sudden change in position might be connected to the steroids he's taking as he battles coronavirus."
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It would be safe to say that Trump's decision flummoxed most observers and Trump allies alike. As the New York Times's Nate Cohn tweeted, in the last NYT/Siena poll, "voters overwhelmingly supported a new $2 trillion dollar stimulus package by a 72-23 percent margin. It's just astonishing that a president trailing by 9 points is going to pass on this opportunity." The NYT's Neil Irwin points out that the lack of a stimulus guarantees mass layoffs in an awful lot of cities located in swing states. Unsurprisingly, the stock market — Trump's favorite economic indicator — tumbled on the news.
Nate Silver aptly summed up the political implications of Trump's decision:
What is going on? Why would Trump decide to walk away from bolstering the one issue where he is competitive with Biden, the issue that resonates with voters the most? Let us consider the possibilities.
We can rule out the notion that this is some high-risk, high-upside play for Trump. I predicted he would be engaging in repeated gambles for resurrection back in April. But — and this cannot be stressed enough — there is no political upside to this play. There is no framing in which Trump walking away from negotiations at this juncture looks good for him.
It is possible that Trump is simply listening to his worst economic advisers. According to Werner and Stein, "some conservative voices had urged Trump to reject a new spending package." These include Art Laffer, who visited the White House last week, and Stephen Moore, who actually told Vox's Jane Coaston over the summer that "sending money to people is not a way to stimulate the economy."
But this is a dubious claim as well. Trump tasked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin with the negotiations, and Mnuchin pretty clearly preferred cutting a deal. Trump himself suggested he wanted a large stimulus a few hours before ending negotiations.
There are three remaining possibilities, and none of them imply anything good for Trump. The first, consistent with my toddler thesis, is that Trump is throwing a tantrum. If the president cannot get what he wants, he will just take his ball and go home to remind everyone that he is still the president. Pelosi's steroid explanation would be consistent with this hypothesis. Toddlers, when they are losing, will often pitch a fit in an attempt to end the game.
Another, related hypothesis is that Trump does not want to win reelection. Axios's Alayna Treene and Zachary Basu quoted one Trump campaign adviser saying: "You have to try to be this politically inept. What is going on in the White House?" Reading this quote, I kept flashing back to the opening of this Michael Lewis column about the night Donald Trump won in 2016:
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"Chris Christie was sitting on a sofa beside Trump when Pennsylvania was finally called. It was 1:35 a.m., but that wasn't the only reason the feeling in the room was odd. Mike Pence went to kiss his wife, Karen, and she turned away from him. "You got what you wanted, Mike," she said. "Now leave me alone." She wouldn't so much as say hello to Trump. Trump himself just stared at the TV without saying anything, like a man with a pair of twos whose bluff has been called. His campaign hadn't even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It was not hard to see why Trump hadn't seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: why study for a test you will never need to take?"
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This is of a piece with a story that the New York Times's Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni wrote back in June:
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"The president is acting trapped and defensive, and his self-destructive behavior has been so out of step for an incumbent in an election year that many advisers wonder if he is truly interested in serving a second term.
"Rather than focus on plans and goals for another four years in office, Mr. Trump has been wallowing in self-pity about news coverage of him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, people who have spoken with him said. He has told advisers that no matter what he does, he cannot get 'good' stories from the press, which has often been his primary interest. 'These people,' Mr. Trump has growled to advisers about reporters, throwing an expletive between the two words.
"He has complained that nothing he does is good enough, bristling at criticism that he hasn't sufficiently addressed the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by the police in Minneapolis. "
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This is plausible, but it is striking that Trump's decision received support from the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell very much wants to stay in power. Why would he endorse this stratagem?
The remaining theory is also the most horrific: Trump and McConnell know that Trump is going to lose and the GOP is going to lose control of the Senate as well. The current odds favor both of these events occurring, and the forecasting models have not incorporated the negative impact of Trump's first debate performance and his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Any fiscal stimulus passed now will help the president the most in 2021. If Trump and McConnell know that Biden will be the president then, they have less of an incentive to attempt to rescue the U.S. economy. Instead, polarization has left them with one overarching lesson: If they know they are on the way out, best to salt the earth.
I am not completely convinced that this is the best explanation. But it says something that I cannot dismiss it out of hand, either.
Daniel W. Drezner wrote this piece for The Washington Post.