Donald Trump wasn’t conservative enough for Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney said that candidate Trump was a terrible person, and he wouldn’t vote for him. Nevertheless, he accepted the President-elect’s offer to run the Office of Management and Budget. Later, he added the title of Director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau after Obama appointee Richard Cordray was fired.
As CPFB director, Mulvaney immediately fired all members of the agency’s advisory board and defanged the pro-consumer agency. As OMB director, his office has become a way station for the stray lobbyist or dissatisfied donor. Yet, after two years of service, Mulvaney is not the object of a criminal investigation. High praise, indeed.
On paper Mulvaney, a deficit hawk, is an unlikely chief of the OMB, which has overseen a historic increase in the national debt. Mulvaney claimed that the United States would outgrow its spending hikes, which so far is not the case. Growth as measured as a percentage of GDP fell from the promising 4% range into quicksand of 2%. Mulvaney’s hoped-for growth by tax cut has not materialized.
All the more surprising is Mulvaney’s willingness to take on another job, this time as Acting Chief of Staff. He’s going to hold on to the OMB title, avoiding the necessity of ramming another anti-agency industry hack through the Senate confirmation process. Mulvaney coming aboard with the title of Acting Chief of Staff gives him cover if he is dumped like Priebus and Kelly were. It also gives him control on domestic policy and relations with congress. At least, Mulvaney has more latitude to conduct government business in a comparatively conventional way.
Can Mulvaney do what his predecessors could not? For starters, he is trying with some success to translate Trump’s impulsiveness into political norms. This morning on Meet the Press, he addressed many pressing issues. On the border wall: “We gave [Democrats] an offer [between the $5 billion figure and the $1.6 billion figure] and we’re waiting to hear back from them right now.” His statement is addition by subtraction. The administration will drop its settlement number to end the shutdown, making it sound like the usual congressional horse-trading. Still, no DACA, no wall, as far as the Democrats are concerned.
Mulvaney tries to be plain spoken-ish. “The president is not going to not accept money for a border wall.” Mulvaney also shifted the administration on getting Mexico to pay for the wall. He conceded matter-of-factly that the administration cannot actually make Mexico pay for the wall. He suggested that Trump’s promise was aspirational, not transactional. For Mulvaney, Mexico’s greater deterrence of Central America migrants becomes a stand-in for the wall. The slatted fence with the points is another stand-in for the wall. Without fanfare, Mulvaney downgraded the wall from BBW (Big, Beautiful Wall) to FWB (Fence with Benefits). Border wall has been re-purposed as border security, opening the door to non-wall measures which are acceptable to the Democrats and don’t look to Trump’s base like surrender. Congress will make a deal sooner or later, and Mulvaney will be smack dab in the middle of it.
Mulvaney is the Message
Mulvaney also is also seizing control of the message. If this morning’s appearances are a preview of things to come, Mulvaney will get the chance to move the congressional pile and to propose compromises that don’t completely forfeit the boss’s political capital.
Making It Real
According to Mulvaney, Trump now realizes that he can’t fire the Fed Chief. If so, this recognition is uncharted territory for the Accidental President. Mulvaney chalks up Mattis’ firing to a difference in philosophy between Trump and Mattis. Of course, it is just as much a difference in process, which Mattis identified as a reason for leaving. Mulvaney is trying to forge a real-world convergence of American politics and Trump’s alternste universe.
Shortly after the Sunday shows, the White House announced that the nomination of a new Defense Secretary has been advanced from to January 3rd from February 28th. The announcement is meant to assure the public that this administration is not the shambles it appears to be, and to persuade the public that there is at least one person ready to lead the Pentagon under this president. Mulvaney’s fingerprints are on this too.
Out of the Sandbox
For the moment and until further notice, Mulvaney will play the adult in the room. He is attempting to project himself as the savior of a lost administration, or at least the voice of reason drowned out by the White House din. If this is political calculation by Mulvaney, he is playing it smart.
Kelly never had any political arrows in his quiver. He is a former general, not a former legislator. On the other hand, Congressman Mulvaney was washed ashore in Washington bu the Tea Party tsunami. Paradoxically, he’s trying to build an unsinkable platform using the DC swamp as his foundation.