Trump Fades Away

Populists must be popular. They speak for “the people” – a hazy concept of course. Richard Nixon said he spoke for the “silent majority” – but no one could prove they existed, because they were, after all, silent. Still, enough people felt they hadn’t been heard, enough people to get him elected twice. Donald Trump said he spoke for “the people” and lost the popular vote, which was probably a bad sign. A populist who isn’t popular is going to have trouble. He (or she) is going to be surprised. Everyone wants this! No, they don’t. What’s wrong with the people? Nothing is wrong with the people. What’s wrong with the news coverage? Nothing is wrong with the news coverage. Populists can delude themselves. That always ends badly.

Similarly, strong leaders – Donald Trump says he is one of those – have enthusiastic people working for them. They believe in the well-articulated and utterly convincing “vision” of that strong leader of how things should be. They buy into it all. They become true-believers. They don’t do this:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frustrations with the White House have been building for months. Last Friday, they exploded.

The normally laconic Texan unloaded on Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment.

Tillerson also complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department – particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.

The episode stunned other White House officials gathered in chief of staff Reince Priebus’ office, leaving them silent as Tillerson raised his voice.

No one expected that, but it had to happen:

It was the loudest manifestation yet of how frustrated Tillerson is in his new role. He has complained about White House attempts to push personnel on him; about the president’s tweets; and about the work conditions in a West Wing where he sometimes finds loyalty and competence hard to buy. Above all, the former ExxonMobil CEO, accustomed to having the final word on both personnel and policy in his corporate life, has balked at taking orders from political aides younger and less experienced than he is.

Tillerson expected competence. Donald Trump had promised competence. He was fed up, but lots of people are fed up with the “vision” of this strong leader of how things should be.

Aaron Blake reviews the bad news:

We’ve just seen three new polls on the Senate GOP’s health-care bill, and each of them paints an increasingly dire picture for Republicans.

Support for the bill is languishing between just 1 out of every 8 Americans and 1 out of every 6 Americans, according to polls from the Marist (17 percent), USA Today/Suffolk University (12 percent) and Quinnipiac University (16 percent). In each case, a majority opposes the bill. That’s a level of popularity so low that it’s difficult to believe the bill is being entertained.

It’s that “vision” thing:

It’s all a pretty stunning indictment of the GOP’s failure to sell the bill. Republicans have focused like a laser on passing the legislation quickly – and secretively – in hopes of getting to a conference committee where the House and Senate can negotiate the final product. In the meantime, the American people have soured on the bill, disliking almost everything about it

Blake is not exaggerating:

Quinnipiac asked whether people supported cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, as the Senate bill does; people opposed that 61 percent to 35 percent at first blush and then 80 to 15 when informed that such funds cannot be used for abortion.

The pollster asked how people felt about cutting funding for Medicaid, as the GOP bill does by some $772 billion over the next decade; people opposed that 71 percent to 24 percent.

Suffolk asked whether people supported requiring that people with preexisting conditions pay the same as everyone else, a requirement which the Senate bill allows states to opt out of; 77 percent said that was “very important” to them.

Quinnipiac found two-thirds of Americans said they were either “very concerned” (47 percent) or “somewhat concerned” (21 percent) that this bill was crafted almost completely behind closed doors in what some say was an unprecedentedly secretive process.

That’s basically 7 in 10 Americans who oppose four central aspects of the GOP health-care push.

Donald Trump backs this bill. Populists can delude themselves:

The Quinnipiac poll shows nearly half of Americans (48 percent) strongly disapprove of this bill, versus just 6 percent – SIX – would strongly approve of it. Only 18 percent of Republicans support this bill and say they feel strongly about its passage.

Republicans made a calculated decision to try to pass health care quickly and without much of a public relations push. They are paying a heavy price for that.

David Weigel notes that this is being ignored:

On Tuesday, the fate of the Republicans’ attempt to undo the Affordable Care Act dominated news out of Washington. Phones rattled with alerts about the decision to delay a vote until mid-July. Camera crews jostled for shots of senators meeting with President Trump, then boarding a bus that took them past jeering protesters.

A viewer tuning into Fox News that night hardly saw any of it.

The network’s prime-time shows, ratings kings of cable news, ignored the health-care story. Fox’s 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows began with stories about a sting video that caught a CNN producer dismissing his network’s coverage of Russia and the 2016 election. “The Five,” Fox’s 9 p.m. show, began with the “bombshell” news that President Barack Obama had said – in October 2016 – that it would be “impossible” to rig the election. Nine minutes were spent on the Senate bill before a segue-way into the CNN story.

The lack of “Obamacare repeal” coverage, unthinkable just six months ago, reflected a general decline of conservative interest in what had united Republicans for seven years.

Maybe none of it happened:

“It’s not that surprising,” said Charlie Sykes, a former talk radio host from Wisconsin who has condemned what he sees as a move toward tribalism on the right. “You look at the trajectory of conservative media and it’s not been policy-oriented for a long time. It’s about whether you get the win or not. There’s nothing for Rush Limbaugh to sex up about a bill that’s neither repeal nor reform.”

There’s nothing there really, but Donald Trump has not been policy-oriented for a long time, if ever. As Philip Bump explains, there’s no vision here:

There was a revealing detail buried in the New York Times’s report on the Senate Republicans’ Tuesday evening trip to the White House to talk health care with President Trump.

“A senator who supports the bill left the meeting at the White House with a sense that the president did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan,” the Times’s Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin reported, “and seemed especially confused when a moderate Republican complained that opponents of the bill would cast it as a massive tax break for the wealthy, according to an aide who received a detailed readout of the exchange.”

“Mr. Trump said he planned to tackle tax reform later,” the report continued – suggesting that the president was unaware that a key component of the Senate plan is the elimination of taxes that, under Obamacare, helped cover the costs of insuring poorer Americans. The elimination of those taxes is one of the reasons that the bill has such a significant impact on Medicaid – which itself is a central part of the Senate bill.

Bump goes on to cover Trump’s anger about that – all the blistering tweets about “fake news” and whatnot – but it comes down to this:

Other presidents would by now have sat down with members of the media to discuss the sweeping policy they were advocating, allowing the press to probe and question the proposal and, from the president’s standpoint, allow him to make the case for what was being presented.

Trump has not offered the media a chance to do so. He has held one full news conference as president – and only three in the past year. He has not had an interview with any outlet except Fox News in nearly two months. The last such interview in which he participated was not what might be described as hard-hitting.

Nick Wing remembers the good old days:

In January 2010, less than two months before President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law without a single GOP vote, he presented Republicans with what must have seemed like a golden opportunity.

Obama would attend the annual House GOP retreat in Baltimore and open himself up to more than an hour of questioning, during which lawmakers could press him on any aspect of his agenda. With controversy swirling around health care reform, Republicans could use the occasion to poke holes in the president’s plan and perhaps even expose him as the dangerous and ill-prepared leader they’d been demonizing for the last year, if not longer.

If that was the plan, it didn’t work. For more than 80 minutes, Obama fielded aggressive questions from lawmakers on live television, pushing back against the tone of partisan hostility and offering up a pointed defense of the legislation now better known as Obamacare.

Obama knew his stuff:

When Georgia Rep. Tom Price, now secretary of Health and Human Services, asked Obama why he wouldn’t support a GOP version of health care reform, the president told him the proposal simply wasn’t feasible.

“If you say, ‘We can offer coverage for all Americans and it won’t cost a penny,’ that’s just not true,” said Obama. “You can’t structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage and it costs nothing.”

Obama went on to say that he would be willing to consider Republican proposals so long as independent budget authorities and experts could verify that they made economic sense. The plans would have to pass a “test of realism,” he said.

“I am absolutely committed to working with you on these issues, but it can’t just be political assertions that aren’t substantiated when it comes to the actual details of policy,” Obama told Price.

“Otherwise, we’re going to be selling the American people a bill of goods,” Obama said. “The easiest thing for me to do on the healthcare debate would have been to tell people that what you’re going to get is guaranteed health insurance, lower your costs, all the insurance reforms, we’re going to lower the costs of Medicare and Medicaid and it won’t cost anybody anything. That’s great politics; it’s just not true.”

Obama isn’t Trump, who had in fact promised all those things, but back then, the other side knew better:

Fox News, seemingly unpleased with the spectacle, cut away from the broadcast 20 minutes before it ended.

GOP officials would go on to admit that televising the event was a “mistake.”

Yes, it was. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Don’t challenge someone who knows exactly what he’s talking about with bullshit – he’ll call you out. You’ll look like a fool.

Of course Trump will never do what Obama did in 2010 – details bore him, if he even knows they exist – and Philip Bump notes it’s more than the Senate bill:

This question of Trump’s engagement extends beyond health care. The Times reported in February that Trump was incensed when he found out that White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon set aside a seat for himself on the National Security Council. Trump was “[angry] that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed,” one week into his administration. He’s given over control of the conflict in Afghanistan to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He criticized the Justice Department for crafting a revised travel ban aimed at passing court scrutiny – a revision that, at the end of the day, was signed into effect by Trump.

Populists can delude themselves, but Jennifer Rubin says the whole Republican Party may be deluded:

Republicans’ inability to pass health-care legislation comes as no surprise to those who have watched the party descend into know-nothingism. They hope to get by on a mixture of brain-numbing catchphrases designed to dupe the masses and far-right ideology at odds with the views of Americans, even those within the GOP. Fortunately, that’s not a recipe for successful governance.

She lists twenty populist delusions involved in all this, including these:

Republicans saw polling show Obamacare was unpopular as a sign that people wanted less government. In fact, polls show that having seen what a post-Obamacare world would look like, they overwhelmingly want to keep it – or make the benefits more generous. Each time Republicans argued that taking away health care was equivalent to “freedom,” they lost another few percentage points of support.

No section of the electorate, not even Republicans, thinks Medicaid cuts are a good idea. Using this as an opportunity to whack Medicaid – starving it of resources – was misguided. GOP promises that they were improving Medicaid were hollow and unbelievable.

Taking benefits away from people to give tax cuts to the rich is a dream target for Democrats.

President Trump’s campaign rhetoric made it sound as though the GOP was going to give more and take away nothing in health-care reform. When Republicans did the opposite, they made Trump into a liar and alienated his base.

The White House assumption that it could delegate health-care reform to the GOP leaders who do not share Trump’s populist outlook was dumb.

Now add these:

Many Republican lawmakers – I know this is cringe-worthy – likely didn’t realize that Medicaid serves lots of people other than unemployed, poor people. They grossly misjudged the damage that Medicaid cuts would do.

The entire notion of creating a “free market” for health care is off-base. Government – via Medicaid, Medicare and requirements to treat all urgent-care patients – has already big-footed the market. Reforms around the edges are possible, but there is no free market for health care and there hasn’t been for 50 years or so. (Even at the state level, strict insurance regulations do not allow insurance companies to operate like other private businesses.)

Rolling out a half-baked tax plan with supersize cuts for the rich only intensified the perception that the GOP cares only about tax cuts for the rich.

The idea that taking people off Medicaid wouldn’t cause suffering because they could buy insurance was economically questionable and politically untenable. If your income is so low as to qualify for Medicaid, you cannot afford the premiums and/or the big deductibles (if you choose a plan with lower premiums).

And then there’s the big one:

You cannot pass major legislation with a policy-illiterate president who cannot explain what’s in it and therefore cannot persuade voters and lawmakers of its merits.

Trump could never do what Obama did in 2010 – he doesn’t know his stuff – and E. J. Dionne points out the central Republican delusion, because hating big government doesn’t solve problems:

Putting health coverage within reach of everyone thus requires either large-scale subsidies for private plans or direct government spending, as in Medicaid and Medicare. The Senate bill would toss 22 million people off health insurance for one basic reason: It cuts federal spending on Medicaid and insurance subsidies by about $1 trillion and then plows most of that into tax reductions.

There is no getting around it. You can’t do what the GOP wants to do without hurting a lot of people.

These guys didn’t get it:

This healthcare imbroglio should be the Republicans’ moment of truth. If tax cuts and scaling back government are all that matters to them, they should stop pretending they even care about solving problems that require substantial government outlays. They can out themselves as economic libertarians, which would at least be intellectually coherent.

Or they can drop the tax obsession and admit that delivering what most Americans want from government will make it large and complicated. A start would be acknowledging – along with nearly every other conservative party in the world – that if you hope to guarantee health care for all, only some form of Big Government can get you there.

It’s all going up in smoke. Their “vision” was an illusion all along, and Ezra Klein argues that Trumpism just died:

Donald Trump’s enthusiastic support for the Senate healthcare bill is proof that there is no such thing as Trumpism, and there never will be.

Health care was the issue on which Trump had gone furthest to differentiate himself from traditional Republicans. “This is an un-Republican thing for me to say because a lot of times they say, ‘No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private,'” he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes. “But I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

Yes, he said that, on purpose:

The promises Trump made on health care were sharp breaks with conservative orthodoxy, and he knew it. “Insurance for everybody,” he promised. “Much lower deductibles,” he said. And he bragged about crossing conservatives to protect entitlements…

But in office, President Trump has been submissive to the congressional GOP’s healthcare agenda. He threw his weight behind Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act, calling it “incredibly well crafted” and holding a Rose Garden celebration after it cleared the chamber.

He simply changed:

The insurgent campaigner who relished confrontation with the congressional GOP during the election has been surprisingly low-energy in pushing his own agenda.

What is true on health care is true elsewhere in Trump’s presidency. His budget was lifted from the Heritage Foundation’s wish list and broke his promise to protect Social Security. His “infrastructure week” came and went without a plan. His outline for tax reform reflected traditional conservative ideas about how to cut taxes for the rich and abandoned his populist promise to raise rates on billionaires like himself. His wall between the US and Mexico remains unfunded on both sides. His foreign policy has, in most cases, reflected the consensus that preceded him. Virtually the only distinct elements of Trumpism that exists today are his hostility to immigrants and the travel ban, which is now a temporary half-policy that the Supreme Court could still strike down.

And of course there’s a reason for all that:

Trumpism’s biggest problem, by far, is that its namesake doesn’t believe in it. Trump delivers his policy pronouncements with confidence and brio, so it’s easy to assume he’s committed to them. But the force he brings to salesmanship obscures the diffidence he brings to governance.

“The idea that Trump had a stable set of intuitions that could then be translated into a set of principles that could then be translated into a set of policies was wrong,” says Yuval Levin, the influential editor of the conservative journal National Affairs. “People made a lot of some things Trump said during the campaign, but it seems he didn’t have a worldview in that way. He just gets pushed and pulled in different directions.”

There will be no well-articulated and utterly convincing “vision” of how things should be from this “strong” leader:

No one thought Trump would spend much time in the policy weeds. But they did think he would have strong opinions on the overall direction of policy and he would demand those opinions be heeded. Congressional Republicans feared Trump blasting their bills and their budgets as a way to boost his own popularity and define his brand of populism. But Trump has proven remarkably fluid in his policy positions. While hints of the old Trump have surfaced occasionally, as when he called the House health care bill “mean” (after lobbying on its behalf), he has mostly been content to support whatever Ryan and McConnell think they can pass.

Congressional Republicans have learned their lesson: They don’t need to worry about Trump’s past statements because Trump doesn’t worry about his past statements.

That also leads to another kind of chaos:

Trump does not seem to have staffed his White House with any particular ideological or even operational goal in mind. He hired GOP party operatives like Reince Priebus to top management positions, anti-populists like Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin to run his economic policy, and mainstream generals like H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis to run his national security policy.

That might have been necessity… but the result is that Trump is getting advice from people who largely oppose everything that made his candidacy distinct.

Tom Price, his health and human services secretary, used to author the House GOP healthcare plans that Trump ran against. Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, believes the entitlement programs Trump wants to protect are the single largest threat facing the nation’s finances. Mattis, his defense secretary, is a firm believer in the international coalitions Trump views with such mistrust. Cohn, who runs Trump’s National Economic Council, is a fan of the internationalist economic order Trump derides. And Priebus, the former Republican National Committee director who is now Trump’s chief of staff, just wants a united Republican Party – that’s all he ever wanted.

Making matters worse is that Trump chose a hyper-confrontational governing style that robbed him of any leverage he might have had over the Republican Party. He has infuriated liberals, done nothing to build relationships with congressional Democrats, and embroiled himself in a series of scandals that make it existentially important that he retains the support of congressional Republicans. As a result, he has no political room to play Democrats against Republicans, which would be necessary if he wanted to pull the GOP into a new ideological space.

Klein says that there’s a simple reason that Trumpism died:

Trump didn’t believe in it, his staff didn’t believe in it, and his political strategy made it impossible.

Populists must be popular. Strong leaders must have a well-articulated and utterly convincing “vision” of how things should be. Trump has neither and he’s fading away. Others will do the job, or their part of the job, the best they can, hoping he doesn’t tweet again. We may be without a president for the next few years. This one, like Elvis, has left the house.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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