America awoke this morning to yet another Twitter Storm from the Tweeter in Chief. In this case, the subject was his claim that President Obama had tapped his phones. This is an explosive allegation about which we are certain to hear more and on which I will expect to comment further in a future blog. For the moment, I will only say that, to the extent there is any factual basis for such a serious charge, it should have been set out–and presented in a carefully prepared statement rather than in a series of dawn tweets. Absent such a statement, it seems likely that the storm was simply intended to distract attention from the stumbles of Attorney General Sessions and the accumulating evidence of various connections with Russia on the part of Trump and his associates. With all that has gone on in the last few days, it is hard to believe that Trump’s address to Congress was given only on Tuesday. Before it passes from memory, however, a few comments are in order.
A notable aspect of President Trump’s address to Congress lay in the repeated standing ovations accorded the President (and a frequently beaming Speaker Ryan seen over Trump’s left shoulder.) Standing ovations at presidential addresses to Congress, most often dispensed on a partisan basis, originated during the Reagan administration and have been common ever since. (See New York Magazine “Many Hands Clapping: How Did the State of the Union Become an Applause-Fest?” In this case, the applause was notable because the President’s approach has departed significantly from numerous long-standing Republican principles: free trade, free markets, commitment to NATO, reducing the national debt and shrinking the role of government. As the Washington Post’s conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin put it:
Trump is in favor of a bigger administrative state, a more intrusive one than former president Barack Obama. He’s creating a bigger, more intrusive deportation force. He’s looking to create something that sounds like universal coverage. (“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing and hope.”) His mix of mercantilism and industrial planning is a repudiation of hundreds of post-Adam Smith trade and free-market policies.
Similarly, David Brooks observed that “Trumpism is an utter repudiation of modern conservatism” and that “The Republicans who applauded Trump on Tuesday were applauding their own repudiation.”
A recent article, by Phillip Bump in the Washington Post observed that Trump’s favorite insult is to describe someone or something he doesn’t like as “so-called.” The most conspicuous example was his application of that term to the federal judge who struck down his ill-conceived travel ban. Previously however, Trump had used it to describe a wide range of subjects including, to mention only a few, angry crowds at town halls, the popular vote and Russian hacking. Given Trump’s departure from traditional Republican principles it is tempting to turn things around by referring to him as a “so-called Republican” (or, put another way, to ask who’s the RINO now?). Still, that would fall into a Trumpian error. Bump pointed out that all of the people and events described by Trump as “so-called” were, with scarcely an exception, actual people and events. (For example the “so-called judge” Trump referred to is an actual judge and an experienced and highly respected one at that.) So it must be reluctantly conceded that Trump is an actual Republican—at least of the 2017 variety—as are his Republican enablers on Capitol Hill. Indeed, even as Trump’s over-all approval rating fell to embarrassing levels, it remained remarkably high (80-90%) among Republican voters.
How to explain Trump’s continuing popularity among Republicans, despite not the vagaries of his policies, but his embarrassing tweets, the judicial rejection, the travel ban, stumbles of key appointees, and the gathering aroma of the Russian Connection? Various theories have been offered by David Brooks and others, but I believe a significant clue may be found in an article that appeared a few weeks ago in the sports pages of the New York Times. The subject of the article was the New England Patriots, and asked “Why Do Fans Excuse the Patriots’ Cheating Past?” The article suggested that the answer lay in the group loyalty of New England fans and offered an analysis by a social psychologist, David DeSteno:
“It’s not about the true facts, or about how honest you believe a group is, or what the group’s past behavior is,” [DeSteno] said. “It doesn’t matter what sport it is, or what team it is, or even if it’s sports at all. Just being a part of a group, any group, is enough to excuse moral transgressions because in some way, you’re benefiting from it. Your moral compass shifts.”
Apart from the applause of Congressional Republicans, Trump’s address drew generally favorable reviews from the media, leading to a welcome, but no doubt temporary, truce in Trump’s war against a free press. The address thereby qualified as a milestone in the annals of low expectations: the favorable response was primarily grounded in relief that, moored to a teleprompter, Trump was able to appear “presidential” by delivering a relatively calm and measured speech. At the same time, Trump validated his credentials as a showman by an emotional introduction of the widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens, Carryn, seated in the audience. Anyone who was present, or viewing on television, could not fail to be moved by Mrs. Owens’s visible grief and her appreciation for the recognition. (Here the standing ovation was bi-partisan.) While harboring no doubt that the Owens tribute was well deserved, it is possible to question the practice of presidents of both parties to use individual citizens as political props during their addresses to Congress. (The Owens tribute was plainly intended to deflect criticism questioning how successful the Yemen raid had been and Trump introduced several other individuals to illustrate varying political points.)
In substance, Trump’s address was largely a toned-down reprise of various campaign themes. He had little or nothing to say about foreign affairs—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Russia all went unmentioned as did China except in the context of trade. Trump did express strong support for NATO, a welcome change from past comments, but promptly diluted it: “But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact I can tell you, the money is pouring in. Very nice.” To begin with, the “financial obligations” referred to are not commitments to fund NATO but simply to spend 2% of a nation’s GDP on defense. Second, even in that limited context, the increased commitments are, as noted in Bloomberg news, more of a trickle than a flood.
On the domestic front, Trump touched on a number of issues and made sweeping promises while giving little indication of how they would be fulfilled or paid for. For example:
Dying industries will come roaring back to life, heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways, gleaming across our very very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop, and our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.
Apart from a mention of $1 trillion for infrastructure, Trump’s address contained no price tags for the programs he promised nor for the corporate tax cut he proposes or the undefined but “massive” tax cut he has promised for the middle class.
Prior to the speech it had been disclosed that the proposed military build-up would involve an increase of $56 billion to be paid for in part by reductions in the budget for the State Department and foreign aid. Michele Flournoy, a senior Defense Department official in the Obama Administration, argues persuasively in the Washington Post that while there are grounds for increased military spending, it must be spent and financed wisely. As to the latter she observed that:
The Trump administration has promised dollar-for-dollar cuts in non-defense programs, reportedly targeting the State Department and USAID for cuts of 30 percent or more. This would create an even more imbalanced national security toolkit, limiting our ability to prevent crises through diplomacy and development and result in an overreliance on the military. As [General] Mattis said while head of the U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” This approach also is unlikely to fly in Congress. Absent a larger budget deal that includes tax reform and reins in non-discretionary spending on Social Security and Medicare, the most likely result is a larger deficit. (Emphasis added)
Ms. Flournoy did not address the proposed cuts in other non-defense programs, but those are also problematic. Programs within the category “discretionary” domestic spending account for only 16% of the federal budget. Evisceration of them is probably not feasible politically and would be unwise in any event. Moreover, such a reduction in discretionary spending would leave no room for the various new programs Trump appeared to promise. As George Will gently put it, the conflicting promises and constraints leave budget director Mick Mulvaney with a financial Rubik’s Cube to solve. And that may be an understatement. Will also anticipated the argument that fiscal problems will somehow be solved by assuming rapid economic growth:
It is an old joke: Two people, an economist and a normal person, fall into a deep pit with steep, unscalable sides. “Don’t worry,” says the economist, “we’ll just assume a ladder.” It is an old budgeting practice: Assume rapid economic growth.
It remains to be seen how much the 2017 Republicans are willing to assume (or swallow) in the name of group loyalty.