Remember Donald Trump’s tax returns? It was unheard-of for a presidential candidate to refuse to release returns, since doing so strongly suggests that he has something to hide. And at first the Trump campaign offered excuses, claiming that the returns would eventually be made available once an IRS audit was done, or something. But at this point it’s apparent that Trump believed, correctly, that he could violate all the norms, stonewall on even the most basic disclosure, and pay no political price.
Indeed, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton was in effect punished for her financial transparency, while Trump was rewarded for his practice of revealing nothing about how he makes money.
And as a result, we can expect radical lack of transparency to be standard operating procedure in the new administration. In fact, it has already started.
Take, for example, the budget process. Normally, an incoming administration issues a fiscal plan conveying its priorities soon after taking office. But as the budget expert Stan Collender notes, there are strong indications that the Trump administration will ignore this precedent (and, possibly, the law) and simply refuse to offer any explanation of how its proposals are supposed to add up. All we’ll get, probably, are assurances that it’s going to be great, believe me.
True, we don’t yet know for sure that there will be no budget. But it’s already clear that bait-and-switch – big but empty promises, completely lacking in detail – will be central to Republican strategy on one key issue: the future of health coverage for millions of Americans.
The background: Back in 2010 President Barack Obama and the short-lived Democratic majority in Congress passed the Affordable Care Act with zero GOP support. Ever since, Republicans have promised to repeal the law as soon as they had a chance, replacing it with something much better. Strange to say, however, they have never described what their replacement would look like.
And I don’t mean that they haven’t spelled out all the details. Almost seven years after Obamacare was enacted, Republicans haven’t offered even the broad outline of a health reform plan. Why not?
Actually, there’s no mystery here. While many Americans say they disapprove of Obamacare, large majorities approve of the things the Affordable Care Act does, notably ensuring that people with pre-existing medical conditions can still buy insurance. And there’s no way to achieve these things without either a major expansion of government health programs – hardly a Republican priority – or something very much like the law Democrats passed.
Worse yet, from the Republican point of view, Obamacare has worked. It’s not perfect, by a long shot, but the number of uninsured Americans has plummeted to its lowest level in history. And Americans newly insured thanks to Obamacare are highly satisfied with their coverage.
So what can the GOP offer as an alternative? We know what Republicans want: a free-for-all in which insurance companies can discriminate as they like, with minimal regulation and drastic cuts in government aid. Going there would, however, cause millions of Americans – many of them people who voted for Trump, believing that their recent gains were safe – to lose coverage. The political blowback would be terrible.
Yet failing to repeal Obamacare would also bring heavy political costs. So the emerging Republican health care strategy, according to news reports, is “repeal and delay” – vote to kill Obamacare, but with the effective date pushed back until after the 2018 midterm elections. By then, GOP leaders promise, they’ll have come up with the replacement they haven’t been able to devise over the past seven years.
There will, of course, be no replacement. And there’s likely to be chaos in health care markets well before Obamacare’s official expiration date, as insurance companies exit markets they know will soon collapse. But the political thinking seems to be that they can find a way to blame Democrats for the debacle.
It’s all very Trumpian, if you think about it. An honest memoir of the president-elect’s business career would be titled “The art of the scam.” After all, his hallmark has been turning a profit on failed business projects, because he finds a way to leave other people holding the bag.
In this case, the effort to replace Obamacare will clearly fail miserably in terms of serving the American people, perhaps especially the white working-class voters who backed Trump. But it could nonetheless be a political success if the public can be convinced to blame the wrong people.
You might think that this would be impossible, given the obviousness of the ploy. But given what we’ve seen so far, you have to take seriously the possibility that they’ll get away with it.