“A Deep Irony At Work”: Forget What You’ve Heard. Donald Trump Isn’t Really Challenging Conservative Orthodoxy
There used to be a standard operating procedure for Republican presidential candidates when they got asked about the Supreme Court. Avoid talking about specific issues you hope the Court will decide, don’t mention any specific people you want to put on the bench, and just offer some vague principles that sound good to everybody but are actually meant as dog-whistles to reassure your conservative supporters that they’ll get the kind of appointments they want. Your model justice would be an advocate of “judicial restraint,” who “won’t legislate from the bench” and who “respects the intent of the Founders.”
But as in so many things, Donald Trump doesn’t play by those rules. Instead, he just released a list of 11 judges from whom he says he’ll choose his Supreme Court picks.
In doing so, Trump demonstrated to conservatives why there’s almost no reason for them not to get behind him.
But that’s not because the list shows that he shares their perspective or will be ideologically reliable. It’s because it’s yet more evidence that when it comes to the things conservatives think are important, Donald Trump just doesn’t care one way or the other. And that means they can get almost everything they want out of a Trump presidency.
As our reporters Jenna Johnson and Robert Barnes wrote, “Trump’s picks looked more like a wish list of the nation’s conservative legal elite than the product of a political revolutionary.” And that’s because, I promise you, Trump just told somebody to put together a list, looked at it, and said it seems fine. He had previously said he’d let the Heritage Foundation assemble his list, while this one has some of their picks and a few others. But I’ll bet that if you asked him today who’s on his list, he couldn’t give you more than one or two names. Even though, as I’ve been arguing for the last couple of years, the Supreme Court may be the single most important issue in this election, there’s nothing to suggest that Trump much cares about who he puts on it. Which means conservatives get what they want.
Some people, myself included, argue that we focus way too much on personality in the presidential campaign (as interesting as personalities are), because what matters more than anything is the basic ideological distinctions between the parties. Yes, the individual characteristics each president brings to the office can make a difference; for instance, Barack Obama is extremely cautious about foreign entanglements, while Hillary Clinton is likely to be more aggressive when it comes to getting involved in hotspots around the globe. But on the vast majority of issues, what matters is whether there’s a Republican or a Democrat in the Oval Office. Any Republican will pursue basically the same set of policies as any other Republican, and the same is true of Democrats. Furthermore, they’re going to have to fill all those thousands of executive branch positions from the same pool of people. Each party has its own government-in-waiting when it’s out of power, cooling its heels in think tanks and advocacy groups and lobbying firms, waiting to move back into government when they win, no matter which contender from their party gets the nomination.
But there’s a deep irony at work with Donald Trump. He’s the least ideologically committed candidate we’ve seen in a very long time, at least since Eisenhower and maybe even before. To the broad public, he offers a Great Man theory of the presidency: don’t worry about issues, because with my huge brain, superhuman deal-making skills, and overall personal tremendousness, I will solve all our problems. Yet precisely because Trump doesn’t care in the least about any policy issues, conservatives may have no more to reason to fear that he’d betray them on policy than they would with a committed conservative like Ted Cruz.
How are things likely to proceed in his presidency? On the Supreme Court, he just takes a list from conservative activists. When Republicans in Congress craft legislation, is he going to stay up late at night going over each sub-section to make sure they reflect his beliefs? Of course not — they’ll pass it, he’ll sign it, and he won’t bother reading more than the title. Is he going to worry about who all his undersecretaries and deputy secretaries are, and make sure he agrees with the policy decisions they make? Not on your life. He’ll say, “Get me some fabulous people, really top-notch, the best” — and the Republicans around him will put the same people in those positions who would have served in any Republican administration.
Trump has said many things during the campaign that contradict conservative dogma. So what? If you’re a conservative worried about some policy stance Trump took today, you can just wait until the next time he gets asked about the same topic, and he’ll say something completely different. That may mean he isn’t committed to your position deep in his heart, but that doesn’t matter. If on a particular day as president he takes some policy stance that runs counter to conservative ideology, is he really going to care enough to pursue it, especially when the people around him are objecting? Or is he more likely to say, “Eh, whatever — what else is going on today?”
This has already been made clear on specific issues. As this blog has previously detailed, no matter how many times media outlets say otherwise, Trump did not actually signal that he might raise taxes on the rich or raise the minimum wage. All he has done was signal general vagueness born mostly of disinterest or lack of appreciation of policy detail, followed by clarifications that he would cut taxes on the rich and opposes the existence of any federal minimum.
There are a couple of exceptions, particularly trade, where conservatives are generally advocates of free trade and Trump seems determined to start a trade war with China. But even on what may be the issue most important to him, it’s hard to tell how his bombastic rhetoric would translate into actual policy decisions. So there too, the Republicans around him would have plenty of room to shape policy in their preferred direction. And yes, the fact that he’s so ignorant and erratic could have consequences that range from the problematic to the catastrophic. But that’s not an ideological question.
So if you’re a conservative, you can refuse to support Trump because he’s such a raging buffoon that there’s no telling what kind of damage he could do to the country. That’s more than enough reason to oppose him. But if what really matters to you is the substance of conservative ideology, you probably have nothing to worry about.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, May 19, 2016
He says we could buy back federal debt at a discount by raising interest rates. But if interest rates rise by a couple of percentage points, he said last week that the United States of America would cease to exist.
As for taxes, we need to raise them on the rich. No, we need to lower them. Or raise them.
And American workers? Their wages are too high. No, too many earn nothing because foreign workers make so much less. Then again, maybe the minimum wage is too low.
If all his contradictory comments seem confusing, the fact is that they are. They are also difficult to square with Trump touting his economics degree from an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, where he claims he was a top student.
What reality-show hosts say is of no consequence. But every public word presidents speak gets scrutinized worldwide. Candidate Trump’s wildly inaccurate and ahistorical statements are of no official consequence, but were he president they would have serious and damaging effects on the United States.
Consider what Trump said on May 5 to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the cost of servicing federal debt: “If interest rates go up 1%, that’s devastating. What happens if that interest rate goes up 2, 3, 4 points? We don’t have a country.”
By Trump’s reckoning America should have ceased to be a country long ago. Back in 1982 the 10-year bond paid 14.6%. Uncle Sam’s average interest cost on all federal debt was 6.6% when George W. Bush took office. Last month it was just 2.3% even though the debt is 17 times the level of 34 years ago.
Trump talked about buying back debt at a discount and cited his own success in taking out loans, but not paying them back in full. “I’m the king of debt,” he said, in one of his frequent tangential comments focusing not on how a Trump administration would govern, but reminding us of his self-proclaimed greatness.
When journalists try to parse Trump’s words—no easy task because transcripts show jumbled thoughts galore—his response is to accuse them of misquoting him. So, whom to believe: Trump or that lying videotape?
On CNBC, Trump implied that when he took out some loans, he never intended to repay them in full.
“I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts,” he said on CNBC. “And I’ve done very well with debt. Now, of course, I was swashbuckling, and it did well for me, and it was good for me, and all that. And you know debt was sort of always interesting to me. Now, we are in a different situation with a country, but I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed you could make a deal.”
That last sentence might send shivers down the spines of those who buy federal debt, as it could be read to say he would crash the economy as president just to make the market price of Treasury debt fall. I read his remarks as another example of his lack of articulation, but others could reasonably read into those remarks a plan to submarine the economy.
When challenged about his words, Trump revised his comments saying he was thinking only in terms of renegotiating the federal debt—88% of which matures in 10 years or less—to longer terms. What Trump didn’t mention is that Treasury bonds with maturities of up to 30 years pay on average 4.5% interest, more than double the average federal interest rate. The contradiction here is obvious: By Trump’s own words switching to longer-term Treasury bonds would result in interest expenses so high that America would cease to exist.
The Politics of Winging It
How and why “we wouldn’t have a country” were interest rates to rise is just one of the many observations that Trump has never been asked to explain.
When Trump’s comments drew widespread criticism as reckless, he turned the tables on those who reported what he said. He claimed that others put words in his mouth and distorted his intent.
So how do we make sense of the following: “If we can buy bonds back at a discount,” he said, “we should do that.” He also said that there would be no reason for holders of federal debt to ask the government to buy their bonds back at a discount. If that is so—and it is—then why say any of this?
The explanation is that Trump is winging it, making it up as he goes along just as he has through his career, which I have covered on and off for 27 years.
To those who understand economics, public finance and taxes, listening to Donald Trump talk about these issues is like listening to Sarah Palin talk about anything. The contradictions, the baseless assumptions, the meandering sentences that veer off into nowhere belong more in the fictional world of “Alice in Wonderland” where, as the Cheshire cat advised, “it really doesn’t matter which way you go” in search of the White Rabbit, but you could ask the Mad Hatter or the equally mad March Hare.
You might think that after decades of planning a run for the White House—after all, he did run in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate—Trump would have developed a clear set of views on economics. You might think he would have devoured policy papers, retained top experts and tested out ideas in speeches heard by few. You might think he would have polished and logical lines by now.
But that would require treating these issues as matters deserving of serious study. Absent such study, it is no surprise that much of what Trump says confounds those who have spent their lives studying economics, public finance, taxes and history.
Whatever Trump may have learned in college, his flip-flopping and wavering suggest that Trump saw no need to prepare to be president. It’s as if a chef decided he didn’t need to learn how to cook before pulling off a White House State Dinner.
Trump just tosses concepts into a pot. He starts with made-up numbers (our China trade deficit is $338 billion, not Trump’s $500 billion); adds some brazen conspiracy theories (Obama was not born an American citizen); mixes them with irreconcilable vagaries (taxes should go down, but so should budget deficits); tosses in some populist myths (thousands in North Jersey celebrated as the Twin Towers burned) and rotten ideas (the President telling Carrier, Ford and Nabisco where to build factories)—and finishes it all off with a bucket of rhetorical nonsense.
Trump is superb at one aspect of this. His economic stew would induce economic food poisoning, but he sells it with an appealing name: Make America Great Again.
By: David Cay Johnston, The Daily Beast, May 10, 2016
John Kasich had a clear plan in the third GOP presidential debate: Attack Donald Trump.
As the curtain rose and the 10 candidates took their podiums, the Ohio governor started out aggressively, as if already planning to lob whatever he could at Trump, no matter the question. CNBC moderator John Harwood asked Kasich to explain his comments Tuesday at a rally, where he said “I’ve had it” with candidates like Trump and Ben Carson. Kasich elaborated on his assault, saying: “This stuff is fantasy.”
“Well, right here they’re talking about, ‘We’ll just have a 10 percent tithe and that is how we’ll fund the government,’” Kasich said Wednesday night, clearly taking a jab at Carson. “‘We’ll just fix everything with waste, fraud, and abuse. Oh, we’re just going to be great, and we’ll ship 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families,’” he added, taking a shot at Trump.
“Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You have to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline, and I spent my entire lifetime balancing federal budgets, flowing jobs, same in Ohio. I will go back within 100 days, it will pass, and we’ll be strong again.”
Trump, of course, leapt in, saying Ohio turned around economically because Kasich got “lucky with fracking.”
“First of all, John got lucky with a thing called fracking, OK?” Trump said, striking a typically defiant tone. “He hit oil, he got lucky with fracking, that is why Ohio is doing really well. That is important for you to know. No. 2, this was the man who was a managing general partner at Lehman Brothers and almost took us down with it, too. Lehman Brothers, they managed it all. Thirdly, he was such a nice guy, his poll numbers tanked. That is why he is on the end. He got nasty, so you know what? You can have him.”
Kasich shot back by saying he traveled around the country learning about how jobs work while he was at Lehman Brothers, giving him the economic chops to be the leader of the free world.
This “nasty” approach from Kasich was calculated, and one that many other GOP candidates, including Bobby Jindal have tried: Fight fire with fire against Trump.
“Part of being president is speaking the truth to the American people. That’s what Governor Kasich did today,” Kasich’s communications director Chris Schrimpf told The Daily Beast on Tuesday of Kasich’s newly aggressive strategy.
The governor of Ohio doesn’t want to play nice anymore.
By: Gideon Resnick, The Daily Beast, October 29, 2015
“Revealing A Truth He Didn’t Intend To Reveal”: Jeb Bush Wants You To Work More, Whether You Like It Or Not
Jeb Bush’s instantly controversial argument to the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader—that “people need to work longer hours” if the U.S. economy is to attain perpetually high economic growth—has created a great deal of confusion, when the real implications of his view are clear and troubling.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that it’s politically dumb to suggest, even unintentionally, that voters don’t work hard enough. Democrats and the political press are treating Bush’s statement as a gaffe, because his words can be plausibly construed to mean just that. The rest stems from the muddled context of his remarks, and his equally muddled attempt to clarify them. Both sets of comments betray a shaky grasp of basic economic terms. But the key difference between them is that in round one, Bush said people “need” to work more, whereas in round two he said people should be given “a chance” to work more. This is a real and crucial distinction—a true walkback, rather than some weaselly attempt to say the same thing using softer language. The problem is that there are plenty of reasons to suspect Bush was being more forthright in the first instance. It’s quite clear, when you examine Bush’s past statements and conservative orthodoxy more generally that Bush doesn’t merely want to use carrots to encourage work—he wants to use sticks as well.
Bush’s improbable goal is to make four percent annual economic growth normal rather than extraordinary. Both sets of comments speak to meeting that objective, and he reasons, quite sensibly, that it won’t happen unless people who aren’t currently working begin to work, and people who are currently working begin to work more.
The real controversy arises not from the bloodlessness of the words he chose, but from the tactics he would use to extract the necessary labor.
One way to increase hours worked is to eliminate laws and regulations that make it difficult for people to work as much as they’d like. If the government effectively penalizes employers for giving their workers more hours, or if workers face steep marginal tax penalties when they climb the income scale, then removing those obstacles would give people so inclined “a chance” to work more.
Another way to increase hours worked is to eliminate laws that give workers leverage over their employers. Supplement people’s incomes, and they have less incentive to work. Take away their benefits, and they’ll have little choice but to work more. They will “need” to.
The Affordable Care Act creates both kinds of work disincentives. Under the ACA, workers with subsidized insurance stand to lose hundreds and hundreds of dollars in premium subsidies when their incomes climb from 199 percent of the poverty line to 201 percent of the poverty line. But the ACA also creates a coverage guarantee, which means people no longer need to be so reliant on their employers for health insurance. This is a good thing. It will allow hundreds of thousands of people to leave jobs they don’t want to pursue other interests (startups, full-time parenting, retirement, leisure) without assuming the terrifying risk of medical bankruptcy. But conservatives, including Jeb Bush, think it’s terrible.
Bush doesn’t just support removing burdens that hinder people who want to work more. He supports steepening the costs and risks for people who don’t. If Bush can use economic policy as a cattle prod to hasten four percent growth, he will. When he said “people need to work longer hours” he meant our policies should leave people little choice but to do so. If Bush suffers politically for this, it will be because his words can be made to seem condescending. Workers don’t feel like they “need” to work more, and don’t like being told otherwise by a rich and powerful politician. That’s what political commentators are getting at when they call this a gaffe, but it was only a gaffe in that it revealed a truth he didn’t intend to reveal. The real reason his remarks are troubling isn’t that he meant to call workers lazy—he probably didn’t—but that he wants to make workers feel like working more is their only option.
By: Brian Beutler, Senior Editor, The New Republic, July 9, 2015