According to Politico, a Trump confidante says that the man in the Oval Office – or more often at Mar-a-Lago – is “tired of everyone thinking his presidency is screwed up.” Pro tip: The best way to combat perceptions that you’re screwing up is, you know, to stop screwing up.
But he can’t, of course. And it’s not just a personal problem.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump is the least qualified individual, temperamentally or intellectually, ever installed in the White House. As he veers from wild accusations against President Barack Obama to snide remarks about Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s doing a very good imitation of someone experiencing a personal breakdown – even though he has yet to confront a crisis not of his own making. Thanks, Comey.
But the broader Republican quagmire – the party’s failure so far to make significant progress toward any of its policy promises – isn’t just about Trump’s inadequacies. The whole party, it turns out, has been faking it for years. Its leaders’ rhetoric was empty; they have no idea how to turn their slogans into actual legislation, because they’ve never bothered to understand how anything important works.
Take the two lead items in the congressional GOP’s agenda: undoing the Affordable Care Act and reforming corporate taxes. In each case Republicans seem utterly shocked to find themselves facing reality.
The story of Obamacare repeal would be funny if the health care – and, in many cases, the lives – of millions of Americans weren’t at stake.
First we had seven – seven! – years during which Republicans kept promising to offer an alternative to Obamacare any day now, but never did. Then came the months after the election, with more promises of details just around the corner.
Now there’s apparently a plan hidden somewhere in the Capitol basement. Why the secrecy? Because the Republicans have belatedly discovered what some of us tried to tell them all along: The only way to maintain coverage for the 20 million people who gained insurance thanks to Obamacare is with a plan that, surprise, looks a lot like Obamacare.
Sure enough, the new plan reportedly does look like a sort of half-baked version of the Affordable Care Act. Politically, it seems to embody the worst of both worlds: It’s enough like Obamacare to infuriate hard-line conservatives, but it weakens key aspects of the law enough to deprive millions of Americans – many of them white working-class voters who backed Donald Trump – of essential health care.
The idea, apparently, is to deal with these problems by passing the plan before anyone gets a chance to really see or think about what’s in it. Good luck with that.
Then there’s corporate tax reform – an issue where the plan being advanced by Paul Ryan, the House speaker, is actually not too bad, at least in principle. Even some Democratic-leaning economists support a shift to a “destination-based cash flow tax,” which is best thought of as a sales tax plus a payroll subsidy. (Trust me.)
But Ryan has failed spectacularly to make his case either to colleagues or to powerful interest groups. Why? As best I can tell, it’s because he himself doesn’t understand the point of the reform.
The case for the cash flow tax is quite technical; among other things, it would remove the incentives the current tax system creates for corporations to load up on debt and to engage in certain kinds of tax avoidance. But that’s not the kind of thing Republicans talk about – if anything, they’re in favor of tax avoidance, hence the Trump proposal to slash funding for the IRS.
No, in GOP world, tax ideas always have to be presented as ways to remove the shackles from oppressed job creators. So Ryan has framed his proposal, basically falsely, as a measure to make American industry more competitive, focusing on the “border tax adjustment” which is part of the sales-tax component of the reform.
This misrepresentation seems, however, to be backfiring: It sounds like a Trumpist tariff, and has both conservatives and retailers like Wal-Mart up in arms.
At this point, then, major Republican initiatives are bogged down for reasons that have nothing to do with the personality flaws of the tweeter in chief, and everything to do with the broader, more fundamental fecklessness of his party.
Does this mean that nothing substantive will happen on the policy front? Not necessarily. Republicans may decide to ram through a health plan that causes mass suffering, and hope to blame it on Obama. They may give up on anything resembling a principled tax reform, and just throw a few trillion dollars at rich people instead.
But whatever the eventual outcome, what we’re witnessing is what happens when a party that gave up hard thinking in favor of empty sloganeering ends up in charge of actual policy. And it’s not a pretty sight.