On Leading Without Planning

New presidents come to the job with a particular philosophy about what government should and should not do, and something like plan about what to do, and not to do. That’s what they had offered voters, and if enough voters agreed, it was time to get to work. FDR went right to work. The government would spend money, and in fact go into debt, to put people to work – the WPA would build roads and bridges and dams and all sort of things. The new Securities and Exchange Commission would regulate the markets. Social Security would keep old people from starving. Government was good. Government could fix things – and Ronald Reagan got right to work to reverse all that. Big government was always the problem, never the solution. He went right to work to prove that was so, and then Lyndon Johnson went the other way. Government was good again. Johnson talked about a Great Society and America got Medicare – which Ronald Reagan said would be the end of freedom as we know it – and America got Medicaid and Head Start too – and the Civil Rights Act and the Voter Rights Act. Johnson was on a roll – and then Vietnam stopped all his momentum. He knew we couldn’t win that war there, but he also knew he couldn’t walk away from it. He had trounced Goldwater in 1964 but he decided that he wouldn’t run again in 1968 – he was the bad guy now. But that was okay. He had his philosophy about what government should and should not do, and a plan about what to do, and he did do what he had set out to do. All the new civil rights wouldn’t go away. Medicare wouldn’t go away. He did.

These things go back and forth. Republicans always have a plan to undo what FDR did – based on their “small government” philosophy – and Democrats always have a plan to do what FDR did – based on their “government can actually be quite useful” philosophy. Obama gave that a go – and Obamacare isn’t dead quite yet. American voters go one way, and then hate what has just happened, and then go the other way, and then hate what has just happened. And this time they just gave up. Donald Trump seems to have no particular philosophy about what government should and should not do, and no specific plan about what to do, and not to do. He never held political office before – he stands outside the usual back-and-forth – and his grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all. He’d make America great again.

That was the general idea. He tapped into America’s deep pool of resentment of those who question us, and an even deeper pool of insecurity, that they might have good reason to question us. There’d be no more of that. No one would ever question us, or question him, ever again, and of course he won the election. He was something entirely new. He’d drain the swamp.

That’s not much of a plan. That was reaction, not action. He’d undo what Obama did – whatever it was – even if it was sensible and working. What all other nations did – on climate change or trade or anything else – we would no longer do – even if it was sensible and working. He called it America First. It left America looking kind of stupid, pouting at everything, alone for no good reason anyone could see. There was no plan, as such. Go ahead. Drain the swamp, and then admire the dry and cracked mud flats.

Jennifer Rubin, who writes the Right Turn blog for the Washington Post, has had just about enough of this:

The media, politicians on both sides of the aisle and foreign leaders have sustained the pretense for the first 16 months of President Trump’s tenure that he is rational. Out of a sense of self-preservation and a desire not to panic billions of people around the globe, they’ve all played along, pretending that there is a method to his contradictory statements, his personnel shuffles and his tweets. They’ve acted as if he understands the content of the speeches he reads off a teleprompter and knows what’s in the bills he signs. They’ve maintained the fiction that he has a working knowledge of history and economics, that he has a grasp of the Constitution, and that he remembers or cares to remember what he said a day or an hour ago.

It’s time to fess up. The weight of the evidence is that these soothing tales we tell ourselves and one another do not reflect what is really going on.

She sees no philosophy and subsequent planning here:

He doesn’t play chess of any dimension nor is he cleverly distracting us from one calamity with another. He acts out because he lacks the knowledge, discipline, perspective and decency to behave otherwise. Yes, we’d rather be led by any of the teenage speakers on the March for Our Lives stage – who know what they don’t know and have a good grasp of civics – than the current Oval Office inhabitant. Goodness knows the teenagers are more respectful and concerned about their fellow citizens than Trump is…

Trump’s opinion on a matter at any given time seems to be derived from Fox Pretend News hosts and his “gut” – which has led him to two divorces, extramarital affairs, a dozen or so failed businesses, multiple bankruptcies and a series of policy and personnel debacles. He is informed by nothing more than his own narcissism, racist beliefs and reality-television existence. He is either so desperate or so out of touch with reality that he thinks what his presidency needs is more Trump. He is not going to bother paying attention to those with more knowledge, more sense and more experience than himself; instead, he’ll be guided by flame-throwers on cable television.

Rubin sees where that leads:

He really doesn’t deliver what he keeps saying he will. He signed a bill that funded Planned Parenthood but not the wall. He agreed to spend gobs of money Democrats wanted on domestic programs. He did not slash foreign aid. He did not “defund” sanctuary cities nor did he curb legal immigration. (The bill allows the administration to nearly double the number of H-2B visas available for companies to hire temporary foreign workers this year to 129,547.) But then again, it’s very possible he had no idea all that was in the bill he signed. After all, he thinks he has effectively repealed Obamacare by eliminating the individual mandate.

And there’s more:

Even his steel and aluminum tariffs are largely for show; the administration exempted from the tariffs most of the top exporting countries. He probably isn’t all that certain – or doesn’t care what the tariffs actually do. Is that harsh? No, he still thinks the trade deficit means we are “losing money” and NATO countries pay into some giant NATO piggy bank to fund their defense.

Rubin sees a man moored to nothing at all:

Trump is doing plenty – but not in fulfillment of his promises to his base (sorry, a tax cut for corporations doesn’t count), nor in service of any ideology. He lumbers about tearing down democratic norms (which he likely does not know are norms, or does not care), throwing allies into confusion and panic, jolting the markets and perhaps bringing us closer to nuclear confrontation with not one, but two rogue states. There is no plan; there never was. There are no guardrails; most of the guardians have been fired.

That’s not a comforting picture, but perhaps it’s better to come to grips with the reality that we have an irrational man at the helm and a Congress afraid to do anything about it.

Sure, but America wanted something entirely different. That’s what they got, but Eugene Robinson notes how that has led nowhere:

President Trump’s most urgent political problem doesn’t involve Robert S. Mueller III, Stormy Daniels, Vladimir Putin or the hundreds of thousands of voters who marched for gun control. Rather, it’s that his die-hard supporters might be starting to realize how thoroughly he has played them for suckers.

On immigration, the issue that most viscerally connects the president with his thus-far-loyal base, Trump got basically nothing in the $1.3 trillion spending bill he signed Friday.

The vaunted “big, beautiful wall” he pledges to build along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico? Trump got 25 miles’ worth of new wall, along with eight miles of new fencing. And the bill specifies that none of this tiny increment can be built using any of the prototype designs Trump so ostentatiously showed off…

The threatened punishment for “sanctuary cities” that show compassion for undocumented immigrants? Not in there. The money to hire 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents? Trump got enough for just 100, with the proviso that they all be administrative and support personnel working in offices, not in the field. The 20 percent increase in funding for detention centers that Trump asked for? Congress not only refused to authorize an extra penny but also went so far as to rebuke ICE for overspending its current detention budget.

That sort of thing leads to this:

The results sent conservative pundit Ann Coulter into paroxysms on Twitter, flying uncontrollably into all-caps mode. One tweet read simply: “CONGRATULATIONS, PRESIDENT SCHUMER!”

Robinson understands that:

Think of it this way: If I told you that the president just signed spending legislation that funds Planned Parenthood but not a border wall, you might wonder for a moment if Barack Obama were still president and this whole ridiculous Donald Trump thing had been just a long, profoundly disturbing dream…

Aside from his business-friendly tax cut and deregulation policies, Trump has offered little more than symbolic crumbs to his red-meat base. As Coulter wrote in a column: If “you’re a Trump voter, you’re scratching your head wondering what happened to those campaign promises that set him apart from every other Republican.”

Robinson can only explain that this way:

Trump obviously didn’t actually mean much of the crazy stuff he said during his campaign, but his racism and xenophobia did seem sincere. On immigration, it’s probably the sheer incompetence of the Trump White House that has caused the president to go back on his word.

There is that, and there is this too:

Howard Stern has some advice for President Trump: “get the fuck out” of the White House.

“I was watching the news. They said that the president calls his friends and asks advice,” Stern said on his eponymous SiriusXM radio show on Tuesday, following a discussion about adult film star Stormy Daniels’s allegations that she had an affair with Trump. “He’s never once called me and asked for advice,” Stern lamented.

Stern was a bit upset:

As a New York real estate mogul, Trump was a frequent guest on Stern’s radio show, where he dished on everything from celebrities to his sex life. While the 64-year-old former “America’s Got Talent” judge has insisted he’s not “an insider” when it comes to Trump, he’s had a personal relationship with the president and called him a friend.

“Well, maybe he’s just not thinking that you have good advice,” Stern’s co-host, Robin Quivers, said.

“Yeah, probably not,” Stern replied. “My advice would be, like, get the fuck out of there, man.”

“Why do you need that for?” Stern exclaimed. “Go back to Mar-a-Lago and hang.”

Stern says Trump should simply pack it in and hand things over to his vice president.

“Just give it over to Pence – let him do his thing.”

That might be best, but there’s nothing new here:

Stern predicted last year that Trump would regret becoming president.

“Seventy-year-old guy who has made so much money – he’s made billions of dollars – that he has his own helicopter, he has his own airplane. He has a hot wife. He’s got fame from a No. 1 television show,” Stern said last May. “He can walk around Mar-a-Lago, which is like any palace – better than the fucking White House.”

“And then when he went out on the campaign trail, and he started to win, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be president, and all these crowds love me, and it’s going to be fun,'” Stern told his listeners. “No fucking idea the shitty life he was gonna have.”

Stern was right. Trump wasn’t cut out for this. The job is about one’s particular philosophy about what government should and should not do, and having something like a plan. There’s no way to wing it. Reaction isn’t action. And there’s no way to come up with a plan at the last moment:

President Trump, who repeatedly insisted during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for a wall along the southern border, is privately pushing the U.S. military to fund construction of his signature project.

Trump has told advisers that he was spurned in a large spending bill last week when lawmakers appropriated only $1.6 billion for the border wall. He has suggested to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and congressional leaders that the Pentagon could fund the sprawling project, citing a “national security” risk.

After floating the notion to several advisers last week, Trump told House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that the military should pay for the wall, according to three people familiar with the meeting last Wednesday in the White House residence. Ryan offered little reaction to the idea, these people said, but senior Capitol Hill officials later said it was an unlikely prospect.

Of course it was:

The president has suggested to Mattis that his department, instead of the Department of Homeland Security, could fund the construction, two Trump advisers said. But the military is not likely to fund the wall, according to White House and Defense Department officials.

The Pentagon has plenty of money, but reprogramming it for a wall would require votes in Congress that the president does not seem to have. Taking money from the 2018 budget for the wall would require an act of Congress, a senior Pentagon official said.

To find the money in the 2019 defense budget, Trump would have to submit a budget amendment that would require 60 votes in the Senate, the official said.

This is not a plan at all:

Democrats in Congress would probably chafe at military spending going to the construction of a border wall, and military officials may also blanch, White House advisers said. Defense hawks in the Republican ranks would balk at taking money now dedicated to the Pentagon for aircraft, weapons and improvements to the armed forces’ readiness and instead steering it toward construction of the wall.

Nothing will come of this. Nothing can come of this. The original plan – such as it was – was to humiliate Mexico – which his base really wanted him to do – and to send a message to American Hispanics to sit down and shut up and stay in line – but that’s not a plan. The wall was the operational means to do that, but such things need careful planning. Donald Trump reacts. He doesn’t do careful planning. Trump wasn’t cut out for this.

And now it’s another odd plan in trouble:

The Trump administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census was met with fierce pushback from critics Tuesday, launching a legal and political battle with enormous stakes in a fight that pits the administration against many Democratic states.

The decision announced late Monday night by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has already triggered legal challenges from California and New York, with the latter promising a “multi-state” lawsuit challenging the administration.

Democratic lawmakers, who stand to lose political power if undocumented immigrants decline to take part in the decennial survey, attacked the decision Tuesday, but there is little they can do to immediately counter the move. The massive spending bill lawmakers passed last week would have been the best chance the minority party had this year to try to block the Census Bureau from moving forward with its plan, with congressional Republicans so far showing little appetite to protest the decision.

The confrontation becomes another key factor hanging in the balance in the upcoming midterm elections, with Democrats gaining considerable leverage to scrap the census decision should they win control of either chamber.

This was a plan to screw the Democrats:

Opponents of asking the citizenship question argue that it will reduce the response rate for the census and undercount the population in areas with high numbers of undocumented immigrants, who could fear participating. As a result, opponents say, states with significant immigrant populations, which are mostly controlled by Democrats, could stand to lose seats in Congress, along with Electoral College votes in presidential elections and federal funding based on census counts. Democrats could also lose seats in those state legislatures.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern takes it from there:

If the question survives a court challenge, it will fundamentally alter the composition of government, exacerbating overrepresentation in predominantly white regions while diminishing representation of immigrants and minorities. The question will tilt political power to the right in both Congress and state legislatures while depriving cities of vital funds for public health, schooling, and other social services. And it opens the door to a new kind of gerrymandering that will further suppress minority votes. The addition of this question may be Donald Trump’s most lasting move as president, one with vast ramifications that will harm communities disfavored by the Republican Party through at least 2030.

That’s the plan, but this may not survive a court challenge:

The census is meant to be a politically neutral tool designed to ensure that Congress is truly representative of the country it serves. Every 10 years, the federal government must conduct a census to determine the “actual enumeration of the people,” and then mandates congressional redistricting based on its findings. From the start, the Constitution required the counting of people rather than just citizens – though it notoriously counted individual slaves as three-fifths of a person. The 14th Amendment remedied this shameful exception by apportioning representatives “according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state.”

The language of the Constitution couldn’t be clearer: Congress represents people, not citizens or voters or legal residents. Indeed, the framers of the 14th Amendment considered and rejected the notion of counting citizens alone. Ohio Rep. John Bingham, the principal author of the amendment, explained that it would be foolish to “strike from the basis of representation the entire immigrant population not naturalized.” Why? Because “under the Constitution as it now is and as it always has been, the entire immigrant population of this country is included in the basis of representation.” The census counts all people, immigrants included, and all people receive representation in Congress…

In 1950, the federal government stopped asking about citizenship on the decennial census. But in recent years, Republicans have crafted various theories designed to justify restoring the citizenship question. Some have argued that including undocumented immigrants in the census is illegal, an absurd claim that contravenes the original understanding of the 14th Amendment. Others assert that Congress must represent voters, not people – a theory the Supreme Court rejected in 2016 in Evenwel v. Abbott, holding that states may count the overall population to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause’s “one person, one vote” principle.

Even so, the Trump team has a plan here:

A Brennan Center analysis found that counting citizens instead of people would disproportionately affect “booming metro areas” like Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles given their large populations of immigrants. It would also dilute the votes of Latinos and make it more difficult to draw Voting Rights Act compliant districts. Harvard political scientist Carl E. Klarner found that apportionment by citizen population would substantially reduce Latino representation in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. An analysis by Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College, reached the same conclusion.

In Evenwel, the Supreme Court didn’t address the legality of such a scheme because it was, at the time, theoretical.

That scheme is no longer theoretical, but it’s still more of scheme than a plan. That’s what’s new with this presidency. This is leading without careful planning, or without any planning at all, and without any particular philosophy about what government should and should not do, other than to do the opposite of what anyone else has done or would do. Call it draining the swamp. Sure, drain the swamp, and then admire the dry and cracked mud flats. Donald Trump really should give Howard Stern a call.

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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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