By Steven Pearlstein
It is more than five months since the election, three months since the inauguration — enough time to be able to make an informed prognosis about economic and domestic policy under President Trump and the Republican Congress.
What we know, first and foremost, is that it hardly matters what Trump says because what he says is as likely as not to have no relationship to the truth, no relationship to what he said last year during the campaign or even what he said last week. What he says bears no relationship to any consistent political or policy ideology or world-view. What he says is also likely to bear no relationship to what his top advisers or appointees have said or believe, making them unreliable interlocutors even if they agreed among themselves, which they don’t. This lack of clear policy is compounded by the fact that the president, despite his boasts to the contrary, knows very little about the topics at hand and isn’t particularly interested in learning. In other words, he’s still making it up as he goes along.
What all this means, in effect, is that in terms of formulating and passing legislation, or even a budget, Trump and his White House are mostly irrelevant, except to the extent that he establishes a credible threat to veto legislation he decides not to like. At this point, all of the president’s major legislative priorities — health reform, tax reform and a big infrastructure bill — look to be in jeopardy. Whatever Congress accomplishes, if anything, will reflect its own political dynamic, without much input or influence from the president.
This fecklessness in the White House, stands in contrast to the radical Tea Party agenda being aggressively pursued by members of Trump’s domestic Cabinet.
His budget director sent to Congress a spending blueprint that, while likely to be ignored in parts, sets a course for radically shrinking the size and influence of the federal government as employer, regulator, provider of public goods and guarantor of the economic safety net.
The secretary of education has begun to make good on her lifelong goal of privatizing public education at all levels while diminishing the federal role.
The attorney general has declared that he will preside over a wholesale retreat from civil rights, focusing the department’s resources on a renewed war on drugs that aims to lock ’em up in privately run prisons and throw away the key.
Unable to repeal Obamacare outright, the secretary of health and human services has indicated he will use his administrative powers and discretion to roll back the law’s consumer protections and low-income subsidies until the insurance exchanges collapse and nothing much is left to repeal.
At the Department of Homeland Security, the roundup and deportation of millions of illegal immigrants has only just begun.
And unable or uninterested in negotiating new trade treaties, the new commerce secretary has begun to use his powers under old treaties to reduce the flow of cheap imports.
Environmental protection, consumer protection, investor protection, privacy protection — the unmistakable message from the new administration to business is that anything goes.
Only the federal courts stand in the way of this crusade to demolish the “administrative state,” as Trump adviser Stephen Bannon describes the federal government, and with Senate filibusters of judges no longer a factor, there will be a big push to deal with that obstacle as well.
In other words, what we have to look forward to is another four years of legislative dysfunction, administrative over-reach, high-stakes legal challenges and further political polarization“.
As a practical political matter, the in-your-face nature of these executive actions has now made it virtually impossible for Trump to reach bipartisan compromise with Democratic leaders in Congress — that was always a long shot — or even with moderate members of the Democratic caucuses. Democrats have largely convinced themselves that the midterm elections are shaping up as a disaster for Republicans (this week’s special election in Georgia only strengthens that view) and that Trump will be easily defeated in 2020, if he even makes it until then. So the Democratic strategy is now to stand back, stick together and do nothing to get in the way of Trump and the Republicans demonstrating to the country that they are unready and unwilling to govern. And any Democrat who deviates from that course is certain to be subjected to the rage of a riled-up Democratic base.
In other words, what we have to look forward to is another four years of legislative dysfunction, administrative over-reach, high-stakes legal challenges and further political polarization.
One of the people who foresaw much of this was my friend Pietro Nivola, who died earlier this month, well before his time. For more than two decades, Pietro had brought his meticulous scholarship and critical thinking to the Brookings Institution, along with a stylish elegance not often found at Washington think tanks. Pietro was as appalled as anyone by Trump and the current state of American politics and governance, but he was hardly surprised by it. He saw it as the logical, if lamentable, outgrowth of trends that had been developing for decades.
Beginning in 2006, Pietro and David Brady, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, published “Red and Blue Nation?” a two-volume exploration of the widening divisions in American society. Pietro had a keen eye for talent and a low tolerance for facile-sounding hokum, and these volumes drew on the work of some of the country’s most insightful scholars and political commentators.
Rereading them a decade later, what is striking is how prescient they were. They reflect, in particular, Pietro’s two great strengths as an analyst. One was to find the subtle ways in which the structure and design of public institutions shapes political, social and economic outcomes. The other was his insistence for seeing the present in historical context, all the better to understand that however disappointing things might be at the moment, we’d been through even worse in the past.
In my last conversation with Pietro, I mentioned the sense of futility I’d recently felt writing columns like this one. In the current environment, I asked, what’s the point of a journalist — or for that matter, a Brookings scholar — spending time and energy developing a well-reasoned argument on some public policy issue, when whatever little policy that was still being made would surely be driven by ideology and partisanship.
But Pietro would not entertain such doubts. He was a patient man who instinctively took the long view, never one to give in to fads or momentary passion. To the end, he never lost his faith that the truth would win out, that the political center would hold and that American democracy would eventually regain its footing.
The question for us is whether there is any longer a role in Washington for such old-fashioned optimism, wisdom and intellectual integrity. We find ourselves in an era when news is faked, minds made up and expert opinions bought and paid for. Who is right, what are the best ideas, how can we do what’s best for the entire country — such questions have become largely irrelevant to a governing process that is gradually making itself irrelevant. All that really matters is who wins.
Pietro was exquisitely aware of the irony of that reality. He understood that in political systems where all that matters is who wins, the reality is that nobody wins. And that pretty much sums up where we are nearly 100 days into the so-called Trump administration.
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