Thursday, March 16, 2017


Writing for Politico, National Review's Rich Lowry argues that President Trump and congressional Republicans are struggling to pass a health care bill because they're on different ideological teams:
[Their] relationship is awkward and tenuous. It is an uneasy accommodation between a GOP Congress that would find a more natural partner in a President Rubio, Cruz or Bush, and a President Trump who would, presumably, be happier to work with Speaker Dave Brat — the populist congressman from Virginia — than with Speaker Paul Ryan.

This is a product of how the Republican sweep of 2016 was won on separate tracks. Trump tore up many Republican orthodoxies and went out and found a different way to unlock the electoral map, winning in the industrial Midwest. Congressional Republicans more or less stuck with the usual script, kept Trump at arm’s length, and held their majorities in the House and the Senate.

As a result, there is no significant Trumpist wing in Congress.
Here's what Lowry gets wrong. Trump isn't really an economic populist -- he just plays one on TV. Lowry is right to say that Trump won the presidency because he made promises (economic and otherwise) to the white working class that other Republicans wouldn't have made. Lowry is also correct when he says that congressional Republicans won by being their usual selves. The messages were in conflict -- but the policies aren't.

Trump and the congressional GOP aren't struggling with this health care bill because they're at odds ideologically. Trump and his team simply weren't prepared to any serious work on the bill, so they let members of Congress do all the work of writing it, and were willing to go along with a no-rewrites plan for getting it through Congress until that plan threatened to make the bill -- and therefore Trump -- a loser. The alleged populist in the White House is perfectly content with a bill that would throw millions of people off the health insurance rolls and would drastically raise out-of-pocket costs for others -- and he's open to an earlier rollback of the Medicaid expansion that would make the bill even more punitive. Some populist.

Now let's look at Trump's budget. Apart from the protection of Social Security and Medicaid -- which will probably be very negotiable as the budget-making process progresses -- there's little or nothing that betrays GOP orthodoxy, as Ed Kilgore notes:
The conservative lobbying group Heritage Action greeted Donald Trump’s first budget ... with the headline: TRUMP’S BIG LEAGUE CONSERVATIVE BUDGET REQUEST. That’s an appropriate take, and not just because the group’s parent organization, the Heritage Foundation, has left fingerprints all over the proposal.... It is, in many respects, a sort of “greatest hits” compilation of conservative prescriptions for paying for a big defense-spending increase with targeted and general cuts in nondefense discretionary programs — domestic spending that is not in one of the big entitlement programs.

... this is a very conventionally conservative budget prepared by the very conventionally conservative OMB director Mick Mulvaney.
Lowry believes that Trump and congressional Republicans are at cross purposes because Trump, lacking ideological allies, had no choice but to allow the congressional leadership to seize control of the early days of unified GOP rule, which made Obamacare repeal a top priority, rather than something that would show off Trump's populist appeal:
... there was no off-the-shelf Trump legislation that Congress could begin on immediately....

The natural reflex, then, was to defer to the Republican leadership in Congress. Trump could have come roaring out of the gate with one of his distinctive proposals, the $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and wooed Democrats to support it and dared Republicans to oppose it. Instead, infrastructure has been put off to the second year, the polite way of saying it may not happen at all.

The congressional priorities are Obamacare repeal and tax reform, both of which could easily have been the first-year agenda items of the aforementioned hypothetical Presidents Bush, Rubio, or Cruz.
Supposedly savvy political observersall believed that Trump really wanted a populist infrastructure bill. But when it was discussed during the transition, the Trumpers got resistance from leaders of the congressional GOP, so -- instead of insisting on it, which would have shown leadership and populism -- they shrugged and postponed it.

And, of course, as Paul Krugman noted in November, what was proposed was never very populist:
To understand what’s going on, it may be helpful to start with what we should be doing. The federal government can indeed borrow very cheaply; meanwhile, we really need to spend money on everything from sewage treatment to transit. The indicated course of action, then, is simple: borrow at those low, low rates, and use the funds raised to fix what needs fixing.

But that’s not what the Trump team is proposing. Instead, it’s calling for huge tax credits: billions of dollars in checks written to private companies that invest in approved projects, which they would end up owning. For example, imagine a private consortium building a toll road for $1 billion. Under the Trump plan, the consortium might borrow $800 million while putting up $200 million in equity — but it would get a tax credit of 82 percent of that sum, so that its actual outlays would only be $36 million. And any future revenue from tolls would go to the people who put up that $36 million.

... what reason do we have to believe that this scheme will generate new investment, as opposed to repackaging things that would have happened anyway?
And if Trump loves infrastructure so much, why does his budget cut so much of it?

Trump is lazy. Trump only sounds like a populist because somewhere along the line he realized that populism won him applause and votes. Trump's subordinates came to Washington having no idea how government works. Trump's most energetic aide, Steve Bannon, was far more obsessed with slashing the size of government and putting the screws to immigrants and refugees than with anything that would help working people, because he's a vindictiveness addict.

That's why Trump didn't come roaring out of the gate with a wonderful, populist, potentially bipartisan infrastructure bill -- it wasn't because he had no ideological allies in Congress.

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