What Trump gained by delaying coronavirus relief [UPDATED]

Yesterday, I suggested that President Trump gained nothing by delaying the implementation of the relief in the stimulus bill passed by Congress. However, I did allow that, as a result of his criticism of the bill, it’s possible that Congress will up the stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000. In that case, of course, Trump will have gained something.

On reflection (and this should have been obvious to me without it), Trump gains whether or not the larger checks are approved. The mere fact that Trump fought for them will help him down the road.

If Trump runs for president in 2024, he can remind voters that he did all he could to get them $2,000 checks. Even if he doesn’t run, he will want to maintain influence with his base. Either way, as one administration official puts it, Trump has sent this message to his base: “Never forget, I’m here, I’m fighting for you.”

It’s true that Trump didn’t ask for $2,000 checks when Congress was formulating the relief package. It’s also true that when the package was ready to go, administration officials signed off on it. The Trump administration was for it before it was against it.

But these details will be forgotten. Trump’s final message won’t be.

From Trump’s perspective, the possibility that his move might divide Senate Republicans is a feature, not a bug. If the Senate votes on the House’s authorization for $2,000 checks, Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 nomination will have to take a position. If the Senate doesn’t vote, Trump can accuse the GOP establishment — the “swamp” — of not caring enough even to take up his demand for a meaningful amount of individual relief.

There’s a tension within the GOP between old-fashioned, fiscally responsible conservatism and Trump’s brand of populist conservatism. This tension, largely dormant during the past four years, might well become a clash once Trump leaves office. If so, think of the current stimulus debate as the opening salvo.

UPDATE: As expected, Majority Leader McConnell has blocked a stand-alone vote on increasing the stimulus checks to $2,000.

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