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Trump did GOP leaders a huge favor by striking debt deal with Democrats

  • President Trump's debt deal with the Democrats lets the already cowardly GOP leaders off the hook.
  • Trump is making sure his response to the hurricanes and the speed of government aid cannot be criticized, as it has with past presidents.
  • The debt is already out of control, and this isn't likely going to be the time or the team of leaders to fix that.

President Donald Trump's relationship with the Republican congressional leadership has been strained, to put it mildly. But in striking a deal with Democrats to push off the debt ceiling battle until December, President Trump has done those same GOP leaders a huge favor.

On the surface, one could confuse President Trump's move as some kind of betrayal of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and an undermining of any hardball leverage they wanted to use to get overall spending down. For those who still think President Trump is still in any way a part of the GOP establishment, the sight of him making a deal with the likes of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer must have been a big surprise.

But that surprise should be tempered by the fact that the congressional Republican leaders have a long track record of caving in on debt ceiling and government shutdown battles. In fact, it's almost a perfect record of failure to stand up to external pressure.

"President Trump essentially let GOP leadership off the hook with this deal. Now, they can presumably blame him for caving in even though they surely would have themselves."

And then there's the fact that, two times in recent years, McConnell has given away the GOP debt ceiling and shutdown leverage before any of that pressure was even applied. That's what he did shortly after the Republicans won the Senate in 2014 when he promised there wouldn't be a government shutdown even before any negotiations over spending began. He caved in pre-emptively again last month when he said there was "zero chance" Congress wouldn't raise the debt ceiling.

With Republican hardball negotiating tactics like that, who needs Democratic opposition?

McConnell isn't the only Republican with fortitude issues. Then-House Speaker John Boehner backed down from the GOP budget fight with President Obama after shutting down the government for 16 days in 2013.

And that's only part of the story. Remember that this debt battle was beginning just as Hurricane Harvey was causing tens of billions of dollars of damage to Texas and the even more powerful Hurricane Irma was threatening to do the same to Florida. Are we really supposed to believe that Ryan and McConnell were going to show stronger backbone on the debt ceiling or a government shutdown even as these storms and their effects were demanding immediate money and manpower from Washington? Anyone who thinks they would should just look at how the congressmen and senators who held up a Hurricane Sandy relief bill over pork concerns are still being skewered and attacked five years later.

That's why it's so clear that President Trump essentially let GOP leadership off the hook with this deal. Now, they can presumably blame him for caving in even though they surely would have themselves.

But the question remains: Has President Trump done himself and the nation a favor with this move?

It's hard to argue this move isn't a boon for the president. The last 25 years are filled with stark examples of presidents who appeared on the ball in the face of hurricane disasters and those who didn't. President George H.W. Bush appeared to react to Hurricane Andrew too slowly in 1992, and then-candidate Bill Clinton scored points by criticizing the entire government's delays. That stance on storm response dictated a lot of the Clinton presidency, as he routinely snapped into action fast in the face of storms. President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina remains an oft-noted example of presidential missteps, especially his initial decision to fly over the affected areas on Air Force One instead of visiting victims on the ground. President Barack Obama was especially front and center in New Jersey and other areas hit by Sandy in 2012.

President Trump isn't going to make the same mistakes the Bushes did, and his approval rating is on the upswing, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, since he responded quickly to Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast.

The more desperate the situation gets in Texas and Florida, the more likely it is that politicians in Washington will find a way to shove added spending measures into bills supposedly only meant for emergency relief. But the spending and debt problems both parties in Washington are responsible for is a more deep-rooted issue. And President Trump was already not a good candidate to fix it with his calls for $1 trillion infrastructure projects and more military spending.

It's unrealistic to believe President Trump would suddenly get hawkish when two major storms are slamming the country. But, it's just as inaccurate to portray his deal with Pelosi and Schumer as some kind of destruction of Republican debt purity. That purity never existed, at least at the leadership level.

Now, at least, Ryan and McConnell can look their more conservative colleagues from the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party voters in the eye and claim this new round of heavy spending isn't their fault.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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