Having No President At All

Small-government conservatives argue for as little government as possible, and some small-government conservatives argue for even less government than that. Grover Norquist – that fellow who wants lower and lower taxes, until there are none and the government runs out of money – talks about one day making the government so small that it can finally be “drowned in a bathtub” – a curiously macabre image. Steve Bannon has called for “the end of the administrative state” – the same sort of thing, without the imagery of gleeful child-murder. Small government conservatives want a strong military, but that’s about it. Americans will be free – truly free – only when the rest of the government is gone – but most Republicans know all of that is nonsense. Some government is necessary, unfortunately. They argue among themselves about what’s really necessary. Maybe Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and the rest of the social safety net are unnecessary. Maybe the FDA and CDC are unnecessary. Who knows? They’re still working on that.

Donald Trump is working on that. He’s cutting every regulation he can find. His state department, and most every other department, is now dramatically understaffed, and he has made little effort to fill those vacancies. He won’t fill them. He appointed secretaries to dismantle the EPA and Department of Education. He wants to see what happens when there’s no ambassador to South Korea and no one is running this department or that, or those departments are gone. He’s with Bannon. The end of the administrative state might be a good thing. But he is less focused than Bannon. There’s nothing systematic about this. There’s no plan. It’s all quite casual, and he himself is not governing much. Policy seems to bore him. He tweets. He wants wins. He’ll leave the details to others. If having as little government as possible is a good thing that means, on his part, not governing much at all. That’s the plan, such as it is.

Liberals – or for those still squeamish about that word, progressives – don’t really believe in big government. They simply believe that the government can do some good things for its citizens. Some things can be big. Some things can be small. Things should be the right size for what citizens decide they want done. Liberals (progressives) don’t like “big government” either – but they have no problem with government – competent government that neither wastes money nor spends nothing on anything.

But they don’t matter much. Republicans control the House and the Senate and White House, and this White House, on principle, scoffs at the idea of systematic competence. That’s “big government” stuff. In June, Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post – opinion from what she says is a conservative perspective – summed up the incompetence she saw back then:

In many ways, President Trump behaves just how poor people imagine rich people do – with garish, ostentatious displays of wealth, imperiousness toward the common folk and disregard for the rules others must follow. He and his staff also act how dumb people imagine smart people behave. Trump talks in circles, repeating stock phrases so as to deflect any questions that might reveal his ignorance. He says he has a very good brain, something people with very good brains never say. He never apologizes, because he is never wrong; the facts others cite are wrong. He is smarter than all the generals, you see. In Trumpland, it’s axiomatic that everyone with experience and detailed knowledge is “stupid”; by contrast, they (the Trumpkins) require no expertise or experience because they are so darn smart. Trumpkins are certain that getting rich (even by inheritance) is evidence of competence and smarts.

She is describing an administration that is incompetent on purpose:

Trump only wants a few people around him whom he knows really well, and who are in no position to recognize the president’s intellectual shortcomings. He relies on family and other businessmen whose obsession with moneymaking has left little time for anything else and whose arrogance prevents them from acknowledging what they do not know (most things). In other words, he hired people much like himself with exactly the same flaws, just a little less rich. He’s an intellectual giant, you see, among the apple-polishers he has put in high offices.

She references that 1971 movie The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight – Robert De Niro actually does comedy –based on a 1968 novel by Jimmy Breslin about an actual gang war that took place in the early sixties. “Crazy” Joe Gallo and his gang felt slighted after they murdered gambler and loan shark, Frankie Shots, under orders from boss Joseph Profaci but received none of Frankie’s numbers business – and then everything went sideways. All that was funny in its way, except for the dead people, and there’s this:

Joey Gallo left prison in 1971 just as filming of this comic version of his earlier exploits began. Naturally Gallo hated the book, but he decided to at least meet the young actor Jerry Orbach whose character, Kid Sally, was based on him. The future star of the television show Law and Order became a close friend to the gangster, introducing him to the New York celebrity world. Orbach even had drinks with Gallo at the Copacabana shortly before the Columbo family murdered Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House on April 7, 1972.

There’s nothing funny about a gang that can’t shoot straight, and there’s nothing funny about the current gang of Republicans:

The House passed a short-term extension of government funding late Thursday after Republican leaders, with help from President Trump, cobbled together enough GOP votes to overcome an internal revolt.

Still, the possibility of a federal shutdown moved closer to a certainty after Senate Democrats rallied against the GOP proposal, announcing they would not lend their votes to a bill that did not reflect their priorities on immigration, government spending and other issues.

By Thursday evening, nine Senate Democrats who had voted for a prior spending measure in December said they would not support the latest proposed four-week extension, joining 30 other Democrats and at least two Senate Republicans — and leaving the bill short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

As a result, Republican leaders – long on the defensive against claims that they were failing to govern – appeared emboldened as they sought to cast the Democrats as the obstacle to a compromise to keep critical government functions operating.

Someone here can’t shoot straight:

Senators of both parties voted to open debate on the House bill late Thursday, but Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats remained opposed to the measure and proposed a spending extension that would last just a few days to allow talks on a broader agreement to continue.

“We have to sit down together and solve this, with the president or without,” he said.

Republican leaders rejected that suggestion. They did not lay out a Plan B to pursue if the House bill is ultimately rejected, except to finger Democrats for a shutdown.

They had to “finger Democrats for a shutdown” because they don’t have a competent president:

Republicans attached a long-term extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and delays to several unpopular health-care taxes. The bill does not include protections for “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children or who overstayed their visas as children, a top Democratic priority.

That represented an election-year bid by the GOP to cast the spending vote as, in part, a choice between poor children and undocumented immigrants. Ryan, McConnell, and other Republicans also sought to highlight the potential erosion to military readiness that could result from a shutdown.

Emboldened Democratic leaders, meanwhile, rallied lawmakers for a showdown on what they believe is favorable ground, fighting on behalf of popular policies against an unpopular president who has had a brutal week of news coverage.

That Children’s Health Insurance Program was the problem:

The late-night showdown capped a long, tense day on Capitol Hill that began with a flurry of tweets from Trump that doubled down on his demands for an expensive border wall and accused Democrats of snubbing the military. Another tweet, however, seemed to upend the Republican strategy for avoiding a shutdown and to contradict his administration’s stated policy position – suggesting that the children’s health program ought not to be attached to a temporary spending bill.

Oops:

Republican lawmakers and aides, who were already pressed to secure enough GOP votes to get the bill through the House, scrambled to decipher Trump’s intentions. Much as he had to do a week ago after Trump tweeted about an intelligence bill, Ryan got on the phone with the president to clarify matters, and hours later, the White House confirmed that Trump indeed supported the bill.

The tweets inflamed frustrations in both parties over what they characterized as an all-too-often uncooperative president.

“We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “This has turned into a shit-show for no good reason.”

And on the other side of the aisle:

Schumer called Trump and his administration “agents of chaos” who have foiled attempts to reach a bipartisan agreement on immigration, which remained the most salient sticking point Thursday.

“The one thing standing in our way is the unrelenting flow of chaos from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Schumer said. “It has reduced the Republicans to shambles. We barely know who to negotiate with.”

This is a matter of competence. That unrelenting flow of chaos came from a president who, on principle, scoffs at the idea of systematic competence, that “big government” stuff. That, in turn, creates a gang that can’t shoot straight. Damian Paletta and Erica Werner explore that:

The impasse raised deeper questions about the GOP’s capacity – one year into the Trump administration – to govern. Never before has the government experienced a furlough of federal employees when a single party controls both the White House and Congress, but that’s what will happen after midnight Friday if a spending bill fails to pass Congress.

While Democrats criticized Republicans for failing to do what was necessary to win their support to keep the government open – a responsibility that has historically fallen to the party in charge – even some Republicans acknowledged there had been a profound breakdown in how Washington is run.

The 30-day extension, passed by the House but expected to be defeated in the Senate, would have been the fifth temporary funding measure in the past year, a period during which Republicans had failed to put in place a long-term budget plan.

These folks really cannot govern, and since they’re in charge of things now, the nation may stop functioning:

“We have one real responsibility here, and that’s to keep the government funded,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “There’s a lot of stuff we want to do or we’d like to do, but there’s one thing we must do and that’s to pass a budget and keep the government funded. And it is very frustrating that simple, basic task has become such a herculean effort.”

Added Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.): “I think it makes us all look terrible and it calls into question whether a democratic republic like the one we live in can actually govern itself in a predictable way.”

And so the nation drowns in that bathtub, because of the gang leader:

Trump has repeatedly mused about the prospects of halting federal operations, saying at one point that the government needed a “good shutdown” to teach Democrats a lesson. The budget he proposed last year was so sparse on key details that the Congressional Budget Office said it could not analyze its impact on revenue.

His aides have not hashed out a broader spending agreement with GOP leaders or Democrats, and the White House and GOP leaders have remained split on how much money to appropriate for the military.

Senate Republicans spent the second half of 2017 immersed in tax negotiations, spending little time focused on how to pay the government’s bills this year.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which votes on spending bills, has held just one full committee hearing since July. Its chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), has missed large spells of time in office while battling health issues. The House Budget Committee, meanwhile, has had three different chairmen in 14 months.

This can also be seen as the end of the administrative state:

Republicans have said that even though they control the White House and Congress, Senate rules make it impossible for them to pass spending bills without bipartisan support.

But there are no signs that Republicans are united behind their own budget proposals. They control just a 51-49 margin, and several Republicans have said they won’t support the spending bill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is battling cancer and isn’t expected to be back in time for a vote on Friday, and they need 60 votes to proceed.

But everyone should have seen this coming:

Today’s budget dysfunction has many of its roots in the election of a tide of conservative tea party members in 2010. They pushed the party to clash with President Barack Obama repeatedly, demanding measures to shrink the size of the government and eliminate the deficit.

This tea party bloc helped push for a 16-day government shutdown in 2013, led largely by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over complaints about the Affordable Care Act.

But the Republican Party never fully united during the Obama administration, with some members pushing for dramatic spending changes and others wary of slashing benefits for the elderly and the poor.

The Obama administration leveraged this GOP split by seeking deals that – even if it splintered the Republican Party – could still become law.

Those days, however, are over, and Eugene Robinson shows no mercy:

The rude, petulant man-child in the Oval Office is reeling ever more wildly out of control, and those who cynically or slavishly pretend otherwise are doing a grave disservice to the nation – and to themselves.

How do you like him now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? President Trump convened a made-for-television summit at the White House and said he’d sign any immigration bill Congress passed. “I’ll take the heat,” he boasted. So a bipartisan group of senators came up with a deal – and he rejected it out of hand, launching into an unhinged rant about “shithole countries.”

What about you, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan? You came up with a clever way to get Democrats to agree to a stopgap funding bill, dangling the possibility of a long-term renewal of the vital Children’s Health Insurance Program. But the president tweeted that “CHIP should be part of a long term solution” and not a short-term measure to keep the government from shutting down.

Is this what you signed up for, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly? In a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, you said that some of Trump’s campaign positions on immigration were “uninformed” and that there will never be a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. You reportedly added that whatever partial barrier gets built, Mexico won’t pay for it. But the president slapped you down with another series of tweets, claiming that his promised wall “has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it” – and that Mexico will, too, pay for the wall, “directly or indirectly.”

How was your week, White House physician Ronny Jackson? You did what is expected of everyone who stands at the lectern in the briefing room: lavish the president with flowery, over-the-top, Dear Leader praise. He is in “excellent health,” you announced. But the test results you released, according to many other doctors, indicate that Trump suffers from moderate heart disease and is on the borderline between overweight and obese.

And there’s this  too:

Having fun, Stephen K. Bannon and Corey Lewandowski? As bigwigs in the Trump campaign, you helped a manifestly unfit blowhard get elected president. This week, you did the White House a favor by stonewalling the House Intelligence Committee in a way that angered even the Republicans on the panel, which is hard to do. But you remain in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, and the best-case scenario is that you emerge unindicted but saddled with mountainous legal bills.

So forget mercy:

No one should feel sorry for those who choose to aid and abet this travesty of an administration. They made their choices. They elected to trust a man they know to be wholly untrustworthy, and to lie shamelessly to massage his swollen ego. At this point, I wouldn’t believe Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she told me that water is wet and the sky is blue.

Robinson is, in fact, arguing that a president who, on principle, scoffs at the idea of systematic competence, that “big government” stuff, isn’t one at all:.

One year into the Trump presidency, we effectively do not have a presidency at all.

As McConnell noted in frustration Wednesday, he can’t orchestrate passage of an immigration bill unless he knows what Trump is willing to sign. Likewise, Ryan can’t pass spending legislation unless he knows what Trump will and will not accept. But the president has no fixed positions. His word is completely unreliable. How are congressional leaders supposed to do their jobs?

Regarding foreign policy, how can other nations take seriously anything Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says when he is subject to being countermanded on Twitter at any moment? What is the point of Jared Kushner’s diplomacy, if you can call it that, in the Middle East? Does “America first” really mean anything, or is it just Trumpian hot air?

So this is new:

The nation has never faced a situation like this: It is unwise to take literally or seriously anything the president and his official spokesmen say. An administration with no credibility cannot possibly lead.

Was that the plan? Grover Norquist talks about one day making the government so small that it can finally be “drowned in a bathtub” and Steve Bannon has called for “the end of the administrative state” – so that one day Americans will be free – truly free – when almost all of the government is gone. Donald Trump, leader of the gang that can’t shoot straight, is making their dreams come true. For everyone else it’s a nightmare. And it’s certainly not a comedy.

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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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