A different kind of president

In the 100th entry of the SAFE blog (this one is no. 528), we mused about how the political scene was being dominated by a newly elected president – whose personal popularity and visibility were sky high at his 100-day milestone. Sadly, from our standpoint, the big government express seemed to be gathering speed. But there were signs that fiscal visionaries might be preparing to fight back, and one could take solace in a well-known quote. Two milestones coincide: 100 entries and 100 days, 5/4/09.

It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time. = Abraham Lincoln

The early months of the Trump administration have been very different. The president is popular with his political base, but he hasn’t won many supporters beyond it – and the media coverage certainly hasn’t helped him. 80 percent of news stories were critical of Trump, says Harvard study, Valerie Richards, Washington Times,

The most negative coverage, according to data provided by Media Tenor, came from the German broadcast outlet ARD, which was 98 percent negative and 2 percent positive, followed by CNN and NBC, which were 93 percent negative and 7 percent positive. The least negative reporting came from Fox, which was 52 percent negative and 48 percent positive, followed by The Wall Street Journal, which saw a 70-30 split.

The president has often been at odds with other political leaders from both sides of the aisle. To cite but one example, a previous Republican president took a thinly veiled shot at the current president last week – and it wasn’t the first time. George W. Bush bashes bigotry, bullying and lies but doesn’t use Trump’s name, Adam Raymond, nymag.com,

The criticism wasn’t confined to Trump’s personality flaws. Bush also went after the isolationism and nationalism that has taken up residence in the West Wing. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism immigration has always brought to America, the fading value of trade, we’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs, and drug trafficking tend to emerge,” Bush said. “In all these ways, we need to recall and recover our own identity.”

The Trump administration has scored some substantive successes – but mostly through executive action (which may readily be reversed by the next president) and with no notable legislative victories to date. The nadir was the failure of efforts to “repeal and replace” GovCare. How things work in DC, Section B,

It’s said the president doesn’t act presidential – he hasn’t accomplished much - most Republicans don’t respect him – Steve Bannon is downright spooky. So is it time to give up on the Trump administration and start planning for whatever will come next?

Before doing so, consider the following.

A. Personal style – There have been many instances, both before the 2016 elections and since, in which the president’s behavior and communications could have been better. He seems addicted to the limelight, often speaks impulsively, and doesn’t readily back down. Trump is the “talent,” not the head of state, Jonah Goldberg, townhall.com, 10/18/17.

In Hollywood -- and increasingly journalism, business, and government -- "the talent" is the person who must be catered to above all others. With few notable exceptions, you can get another executive producer or director, but you can't get another Barbra Streisand or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Most political leaders turn out to have “feet of clay” if one looks hard enough, and it may not be wise to apply a perfect human being test for leadership positions. Don’t get us started about flaws of the president’s predecessors.

Moreover, the president has some redeeming qualities, including a tendency to speak up when things are amiss rather than allowing problems to fester. NATO leaders may not have welcomed the request that their countries start contributing more money to the common defense, but they needed to hear this message. It’s commendable that he wants to get serious about combatting the opioid epidemic (a national emergency is to be declared this week). We welcome his suggestion that it’s time to abolish the debt limit (a nice idea, which simply doesn’t work). Etc.

And much of the criticism of the president has been prompted by political considerations versus objective assessment, based on a calculated strategy of delegitimizing his election in an effort to prevent him from getting anything done. Trump won, get over it,
2/20/17; Dueling views: crucial investigation vs. “witch hunt,” 7/7/17. See also this impassioned political ad, which is offered to demonstrate the emotions of Trump supporters. NRA, video (1:00).

None of this is meant to suggest the president should be immune from criticism, but perhaps the stress should be placed on policy issues vs. personality.

B. Institutional rot – The president is not single-handedly responsible for the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to get much of anything done so far this year; the members of Congress and the procedures/practices of the legislative branch have also played an important role. Many bills have been passed by the House only to languish in the Senate (where there is a filibuster rule), and the passage of controversial legislation is increasingly dependent on an arcane process (which has only been used occasionally) and the nurturing of senatorial egos. Two cases in point follow.

#HEALTHCARE - The president enthusiastically supported the effort to “repeal and replace” GovCare, but he lacked a deep interest in the subject and was relying on congressional Republicans to develop a respectable healthcare bill and send it to his desk for signature. Given unified Democratic opposition, Republicans resorted to the budget reconciliation process. This filibuster-proofed the healthcare bill, but it also limited the provisions that could be included (“budget related” test) and the time frame in which the bill could be considered. The meandering path of healthcare legislation,

In the final act, a handful of GOP senators came out against the Graham-Cassidy bill and it was withdrawn shortly before the September 30 reconciliation process deadline. So much for a Republican healthcare bill in 2017.

The president blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the loss, while Mr. McConnell faulted the president’s unrealistic expectations about the length of time required to pass major legislation. Perhaps they both had a point, but we agree with the president’s renewed suggestion that Senate Republicans should “go nuclear” and abolish the filibuster rule if they really want to pass legislation that is opposed by the Democratic minority.

#TAX PLAN - Another major test is coming up, which may have an important bearing on the 2018 mid-term elections. The object this time is a tax cut/reform bill, which is opposed by Democrats on grounds that it would principally benefit the affluent and add to the deficit. Status of Republican tax plan,

First the House and then the Senate passed budget resolutions for fiscal year 2018, in both cases including instructions designed to set the budget reconciliation process in motion.

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While the House budget resolution is hardly a model of fiscal conservatism (Let’s hear it for the SAFE budget, 8/21/17), the Senate budget resolution (which would lift the “deficit neutral” requirement for the tax bill and cut spending by a token amount) seems even less so. One might expect substantially larger projected deficits for the Senate budget, even after taking credit for the economic stimulus from presumably larger tax cuts, but the data presented don’t demonstrate the point.

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The two projections are clearly on different wavelengths, and the key difference seems to be that dedicated taxes and outlays for Social Security aren’t included in the Senate data – raising the possibility that overall deficits might be considerably larger than (versus roughly comparable to) those projected by the House. One clue is the “On-Budget” term in the heading of the Senate summary table 1; another is a statement in the Senate recap that the analysis “HONORS Social Security’s off-budget status.” FY 2018 Budget Resolution, Senate Budget Committee, October 2017.

The Senate budget resolution was passed (51-49) as a complete substitute for the House budget resolution.
Congress.gov (search for H.Con.Res. 71). And no sooner did this happen then numerous parties urged the House to move the reconciliation process along by adopting the Senate resolution. House pressured to pass Senate budget, without spending cuts, to save weeks on tax reform, Joseph Lawler, Washington Examiner, 10/20/17.

As a practical matter, the budget resolution – which is supposed to serve as a key step in the budgeting process – has degenerated into a procedural tool to invoke the reconciliation process. Too bad about the minimum of $203 billion in spending cuts that the House resolution called for, but actual spending levels for fiscal year 2018 will be set by a bipartisan spending deal in December so it doesn’t really matter does it? Senate passes $4 trillion budget in crucial step for Trump’s tax overhaul, David Sherfinski, Washington Times,

Already months overdue — the fiscal year began Oct. 1 — the [Senate] budget calls for about $1 trillion in discretionary spending this year, and envisions deficits of $641 billion. But even Republicans said those numbers were probably irrelevant, and it will take a bipartisan deal later this year to set actual spending levels for 2018.

Supporters of the tax bill (which has yet to be unveiled, only an outline is available) are now predicting this legislation will move along faster than skeptics were expecting, e.g., may be passed before Thanksgiving. White House confident President Trump will have tax reform on his desk by December, Brad Richardson, Washington Times,

Maybe, Republicans can pass whatever tax bill they want if they stick together, but our sense is that there will be much intra-party wrangling over the details and it will take months to work things out. Status of Republican tax plan,

C. Changing political landscape – Relentlessly pounded by Democrats (former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and many others), the president is also being bashed by prominent Republicans (including former President George W. Bush and the GOP standard bearer in 2012, Mitt Romney) and he hasn’t been enthusiastically supported by other establishment Republicans (e.g., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan).

The president’s personal style (Section A, infra) provides a partial explanation, but there is more to it than that. Simply stated, some of the commonly understood distinctions between liberals and conservatives are in flux and a new demarcation line is emerging.

Such changes have happened before. Thus, the original leader of liberals in the American Republic, Thomas Jefferson, held some ideas that have been commonly associated with the Republican Party in recent years and the same goes in reverse for his conservative counterpart. The founding liberal and the founding conservative, Gordon Wood, Wall Street Journal,

•Instead of the strong fiscal-military state that Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists wanted, Jefferson sought only “a wise and frugal government,” as he said in his inaugural address as president—one that kept its citizens from injuring one another but otherwise left them “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”

Society, Adams said, was inherently unequal, and unlike Jefferson, he believed that the aristocrats who would inevitably rise to the top in republican America wouldn’t necessarily be the best and wisest men. They were more apt to be the richest, the most attractive, the most ambitious and the wiliest.

•Jefferson invented the idea of American exceptionalism. Despising monarchy, he became a true believer in the republican revolutions that he hoped would spread everywhere in the world. His support for the French Revolution was unbounded.

Adams said over and over that America was no different from other countries. Americans were just as vicious, just as sinful, just as corrupt as other nations. There was, he said, no special providence for the United States.

In the post-World War II era, both major parties tended to support free trade and international commitments based on a US role as “leader of the free world.” Progress was equated with the spread of democracy, and a harmonious global community (aka new world order) with open borders came to be seen as the ultimate goal.

Many people are now rethinking the globalist viewpoint, and this didn’t begin with the current president (although he has been riding the wave) nor is it restricted to the United States (witness the Brexit vote, etc.). Liberals have been prone to attack the emerging nationalist mindset, labeling it as “illiberalism” or the like, and their reaction poses a threat to our representative democracy. There’s no such thing as an “illiberal,” Yoram Hazony, Wall Street Journal

A few conservatives, hoping to maintain their standing in the face of increasing intolerance, will break left, framing their support for human rights and economic growth as a form of liberalism. But most conservatives will continue to see nationalism and religion—no less than individual liberty and the free market—as indispensable in maintaining a strong and free nation. They will find themselves members of an illegitimate party, even as journalists and public intellectuals discover that, for them, stamping out illiberalism is simply more important than maintaining a two-party system of democratic government.

The foregoing may help to explain why the president’s views have been so vigorously attacked by political leaders of the globalist persuasion. See, e.g., Obama and Bush launch dual coded attacks on Trump as former presidents denounce “politics of division,” Harry Cockburn yahoo.com,

Again, our suggestion would be to address the political issues on the merits rather than resorting to personal attacks (whether express or implied).

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