Trump has no agenda

Articles about the McConnell/Trump feud, or Paul Ryan’s occasional tut-tutting of something outrageous Trump has said or done, almost always get around to this point: Trump needs McConnell and Ryan to “pass his agenda“. And the root cause of the friction, we are told, is that “Trump’s agenda” is stalled in Congress. Similarly, whenever Trump goes off the rails on some topic he could just drop, we hear about how he’s “derailing his own agenda“.

Given how often we hear it, the phrase Trump’s agenda deserves a closer look. If you ask one of his supporters to explain it, you’ll get a list like this: repeal and replace ObamaCare, reform the tax code, rebuild America’s infrastructure, erect a wall on the Mexican border, renegotiate our trade deals, and maybe a few other things. It sounds like a full plate for a president.

It’s not, for one simple reason: None of those items is anything more than a few words on a list. We have little reason to believe that Trump actually cares about any of it.

Cynical observers suspected as much during the campaign, when Trump’s web site was noticeably lacking in the white papers and references to think-tank studies that candidate web sites usually provide if you click enough links. But supporters had an easy explanation: Trump himself isn’t a details guy. After all, he didn’t design Trump Tower, he hired architects. And Ronald Reagan wasn’t a details guy either, but stuff got done. Like Reagan, Trump would be a CEO-style president. He was promising to hire “the best people”, and they’d do all the wonky stuff for him.

So who are they and where is it?

The first Big Empty Spot was healthcare. Through the entire ugly process that culminated in John McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down, Trump and his people offered not a single idea for reforming American healthcare. He had promised to “repeal and replace ObamaCare” “immediately” after taking office, and he wanted to be able to say he’d fulfilled that promise. But he couldn’t be bothered to flesh that phrase out into an actual program.

So the plans that the House and Senate voted on didn’t come from Trump, from the White House staff, or from his Department of Health and Human Services. Paul Ryan put together the original House plan, which then got amended to get the last few votes he needed from the Freedom Caucus. The public hated that plan, and many of the Republicans who voted for it in the House only did so because they hoped the Senate would fix it somehow.

When it passed,Trump held a celebration in the Rose Garden. He was “winning”.

In the Senate, McConnell seemed determined to keep the pig in the sack as long as possible. If it were legal to pass a plan in a sealed envelope, he might well have done so. On the day before the final vote, it still wasn’t clear what would be voted on.

Trump himself seemed to know no more about any of these plans than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders know about the plays Dak Prescott is calling in the huddle. The current plan — whatever it was — was “great” and “brilliant”, but he couldn’t raise the American people’s faith that the plan would actually work for them because he clearly had no idea. He lectured congressmen about how it important it was that they pass “this”, without appearing to know anything about what “this” was. He still doesn’t know.

Repeal and replace ObamaCare was just an item on Trump’s list. He wanted to put a checkmark next to it. That’s as deep as his thinking ever got.

Now we’re on to tax reform. Healthcare was never a major Trump interest, but as a businessman who has spent much of his career dodging taxes, he should have as deep a knowledge of the tax code as he does of anything. A month before the election he tweeted:

I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.

So here if anywhere, you would expect him to have a real plan.

He doesn’t. Wednesday he went to Springfield, Missouri to introduce his “plan” (and to spend public funds campaigning against Senator Claire McCaskill). He gave exactly zero specifics, but stated four principles he wants tax reform to adhere to.

  1. “a tax code that is simple, fair, and easy to understand.”
  2. “a competitive tax code that creates more jobs and higher wages for Americans.” Competitive means lowering corporate taxes. This is the closest he came to a specific proposal “Ideally … we would like to bring our business tax rate down to 15 percent.” His tone of voice suggested he knew that whatever plan Congress ultimately voted on wouldn’t achieve this.
  3. “tax relief for middle-class families”. How much? By what means? He didn’t say.
  4. “bring back trillions of dollars in wealth that’s parked overseas” The money could have been brought back at any time, if corporations were willing to pay tax on it. So this also is about lowering corporate taxes.

So: businesses and families pay less. There’s no proposal for making anybody pay more, beyond a vague reference to unspecified “special interest loopholes”. No mention of either spending cuts or the deficit. The plan can be simple, because it’s not like clever people are trying to avoid paying taxes or anything, so we shouldn’t need any complicated definitions; and fair, because everybody agrees on what that word means.

You know what would fulfill all four principles? Eliminate all taxes on everybody. Congress, go work out the details on that.

If tax reform follows the pattern of ObamaCare repeal — and why shouldn’t it? — events will unfold like this:

  • Congressional Republican leadership will propose to do some of the feel-good stuff in Trump’s principles, and also some horrible things that are necessary to integrate those changes into the real world.
  • No matter what it ends up saying, Trump will promote it as a “beautiful” proposal that will make America great again.
  • The CBO will spell out the damage it would do: blow up the deficit, create no jobs, shift even more wealth to the top.
  • Once the details come out, the public will hate it.
  • It will include nothing that appeals to Democrats, so Pelosi and Schumer will have easy jobs keeping their caucuses together in opposition.
  • The Freedom Caucus in the House will block it until the horrible parts are made much worse.
  • Three Republican senators will flip, defeating the proposal.
  • Trump will blame Ryan and McConnell for not delivering what he wanted.

Next up? Supposedly there’s an infrastructure proposal coming, but again there are no details. We are promised “an infrastructure meeting on Wednesday to discuss the broad contours of the proposal”. But is there anything in particular that needs to be built, or any particular way to pay for it?

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce that he’s ending President Obama’s DACA program in six months. What will happen to the Dreamers then? Something that’s up to Congress to decide. I will be amazed if Trump suggests what it should be.

Supposedly NAFTA and other trade deals are being renegotiated now, but along what lines and for what purposes? Will Trump be happy just to say “I renegotiated NAFTA?” or will he care what the new agreement says?

It’s time for journalists and pundits to start being more skeptical before they repeat the phrase Trump’s agenda. So far, it has been nothing more than a list of vacuous phrases.

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  • Anonymous  On September 4, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Always enjoy your writing . . . but today I hate to see you use the example of the cheerleaders not knowing what plays the quarterback will call. Did you have to choose such a stereotypically gendered metaphor about knowing and decision-making? Frankly, there’s a better chance of any cheerleader knowing more about football than there is of our president knowing anything about governing.

    • weeklysift  On September 4, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      The image is meant to be of people outside the decision-making process. Trump cheered on the healthcare effort while playing no role in the choices that got made.

  • Larry Benjamin  On September 4, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    This has been obvious for some time. Every politician runs on campaign promises, and assures us that the details will be worked out once he’s elected. Trump seems to have missed that part; he thinks that if he keeps saying something will happen, it magically will. Apparently, he ran his businesses this way, but the difference was that he at least had a few capable people to handle the details. Not that he has a spectacular success record in business, either.

  • gordonc  On September 5, 2017 at 9:43 am

    “bring back trillions of dollars in wealth that’s parked overseas.” Money isn’t wealth, and any person qualified to be President ought to know this.

    • gordonc  On September 5, 2017 at 10:02 am

      If these trillions of dollars sitting in overseas accounts were “brought back,” what difference would it make? They’d just be sitting in domestic accounts instead. Dollars that are not spent have no economic impact. It’s true that some of the dollars would end up being taxed (but not if Donald Trump has his way) and that would probably result in some additional spending by state and local governments. The Federal Government’s ability to spend would not be affected because the Federal Government does not need tax receipts in order to spend.


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