Issues & Insights

A Washington Game of Chicken

President Trump and Congressional Democrats have engaged in a game of highway “Chicken.”   As always with the game of Chicken, it is debatable who veered first; and as with any Washington political confrontation, there is an endless desire to debate it. The lone undebatable point is who lost: The country. 

As any hot rod aficionado can attest, the game of Chicken was a challenge in which two cars drive full speed at each on a straight stretch of road. The first to swerve to avoid crashing loses — i.e., is “chicken.”  It was a stupid game. 

The President and Congressional Democrats have been embroiled in just such a bunch of bravura over an infrastructure plan. Of course, the media gleefully trooped out to egg them on and watch the carnage. Backers of each car swore the other would swerve first. In the end, there was no carnage, no blood shed, but many a chest was thumped.  And of course, there was no actual proposal.  It was a stupid game. 

As with any game of Chicken, we all knew the outcome before rubber was peeled.  Both cars were going to swerve; it is the only rational outcome.  The only certain strategy for winning is also one for certain death — if the other driver also pursues it — with “the winner” becoming an ultimate loser.  The drivers provide spectacle; only the spectators have guaranteed return and no risk. 

The media dutifully overhyped an infrastructure deal to enhance the spectacle. Most spectators, and both “drivers,” knew no deal would materialize. Neither driver felt the reward from winning was worth risking a collision with their base and interests.

For one thing, despite the publicity, infrastructure was never that big an issue. It did not make the Hill-HarrisX Daily Poll’s list of top issues. Whether it was not offered as an option by questioners, or not offered as an answer by respondents, either proves the point. The bigger interest came from the possibility of “a deal,” rather than the substance of one. 

Certainly, it had a big number attached — $2 trillion — and that grabbed headlines. However, the very size belied its realization. It promised major spending — something politicians love — but also implicitly portended major taxes — something politicians loathe.

While infrastructure is a perennially discussed problem, there it remains. Obama did not address it in eight years, despite overwhelming congressional majorities in his first two. Trump did not, despite congressional majorities in his first two. If both parties lacked interest to take on infrastructure single-handedly, what were the real odds of bipartisan cooperation when both parties are now at each other’s throat?  

Nor is any candidate apparently running for president primarily on this issue. And if any are, they certainly have not emerged from the pack on it. 

So, like a game of Chicken, this was actually over less than consequential stakes. And, like a game of Chicken, both sides say they won. 

Democrats can say a deal would have helped Trump.  As president, you get credit for what happens during your term. It would have been “an accomplishment,” further bolstering a strong economy, providing additional insurance against his trade confrontations’ impact, and proving he could work across the aisle — something he notably lacks. Trump got none of these. 

Trump can say a deal would have helped Democrats. They did not get to help shape policy here — spending trillions and raising taxes. Nor did they get to show they can govern — something they need. Trump has the power to take executive action, Democrats do not; legislation is their only option.  After two years running the House, they are likely to have nothing to show for it; whereas, Trump will have the economy, tax cuts, two Supreme Court nominees, executive actions, foreign policy, and a renegotiated NAFTA (even if unratified).   

Infrastructure inaction also helps define a comparison between Trump and Democrats, as one between President and Congress. Such a contrast favors the President. Decades ago, Truman ran against a “Do Nothing Congress” and won big. It is hard to overestimate America’s antipathy toward Congress: In Real Clear Politics’ poll compilation, Congress’ job approval rating averaged just 20.2%, with almost none reaching even half Trump’s. 

Like a game of Chicken, the winner is unclear. However, the loser undoubtedly is: America.  The nation stands for the adults in this Chicken analogy.  They instantly know the game and dread it.  There is a reason why only adolescents play it: Nothing good can come from it, and the best case “grownup scenario” is that nothing actually happens. 

There have been too many games of Chicken. Immigration, health care, the deficit, border security — the list goes on, and unaddressed. Our government has become the least functional aspect of the world’s most functional society. In a choice between private sector and public sector alternatives, when is the latter ever but the public’s last choice?

Through a combination of ineptitude and inaction, the federal government has become more a resource-shifter than a service provider.  By continuing this description of descent, Democrats — the party favoring government — lose a little more as government grows a little less in favor.  The less functional it appears, the more unviable their preferred alternative becomes. 

Still, it is a tough call. Because after all, Chicken is a stupid game. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.

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1 comment

  • There are no more Statesmen/women in DC anymore. Getting elected to the House or Senate has basically become a lifetime sinecure so it behooves politicos not to rock the boat.

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