Sunday, March 5, 2017

Listen: Trump is rapidly running out of cards to play.

Imagine that you are President Trump.  You have made a series of ludicrous promises about healthcare, taxes, foreign policy, and so on.  Now you need to fulfill them.  But you have a problem: most of these promises are extremely difficult, many of them are contradictory, and some of them are just plain impossible.

You promised huge tax cuts, more funding for the military, better healthcare, and a big infrastructure bill -- all at the same time.  You promised that ISIS would be quickly wiped out, that China would be brought to heel with tariffs, and that you would renegotiate NAFTA and the Iran deal.  You promised that the American economy's rate of growth would double and the budget would be balanced and the deficit would be eliminated.

But right now, you're not making great headway on... well, any of these things.  You've fulfilled a lot of the other promises, like slashing the EPA, saying the magical words "radical Islamic terrorism," ordering that regulations should be eliminated, and undoing some Obama orders.  Everything you could do unilaterally from your desk, you've done.  (Even those didn't go very smoothly, honestly, and the damned leakers and journalists won't stop hounding your administration.)

So now what do you do?

Well, you have a few tactics:

1.  Big presidential speech.  Mouth some of the usual pablum and recommit to your major promises.  The more bipartisan and welcoming, the better -- a mild change in tone will be seen as a revelation.  Status: Done.  It went well, but it's done.  You can maybe do it a few more times, but not anytime soon.

2.  Attack your former rival.  You won the election partly because your opponent was widely disliked, particularly among your base, so you can get some additional mileage by attacking her some more.  Status: Done.  It's been months since the election, and you're more than a month into your presidency.  If you keep this up, then it starts to look pathetic.

3.  Blame it on your predecessor.  This is a time-honored tradition for presidents, and it's one tradition you can get on board with.  Status: Done.  You can milk this one for a while, but even in the extreme version (where a secret Obama shadow government is preventing you from getting anything done) it's hard to spin this.  How is Obama stopping you from proposing a healthcare bill, after all?

4.  Denounce the opposition.  Unfortunately, your party has control of the whole government, but that doesn't mean you can't baselessly attack the opposing party anyway.  In some mysterious way, they are still to blame for everything.  Status: Pending.  The Democrats are motivated to play up their own opposition, so this is ready to go.  The next time one of them brags about some maneuver or vote, single them out and say that they're standing in your way.

5.  Distracting attacks.  You are already pretty outrageous, but you can crank it up and create some distractions.  There are a whole host of foils out there on the left who will be happy for the attention.  Status: Pending.  There are a lot of good targets.  A majority of the country opposes you, and some of those people are dumb.  They'll get violent at a protest or attack someone in a crude way.  Or some prominent figure will say something offensive.  Or... well, you can just seize on any old shred of a thing, really.  It's not very effective since it's obvious, but it will fill the air.

6. More symbolism.  You can get a lot of mileage out of declaring you're going to do things, and people will keep believing you for a long time.  And after that, illusory milestones of progress -- reports or meetings or the like -- will also take you some of the way. Status: Pending.  You can raise a hullabaloo over all sorts of meaningless symbolic gestures.

7. Claim victories.  Over the course of any presidency, there will be significant achievements in war or diplomacy.  Mosul or Raqqa will fall to some combination of Russian or Syrian or Iraqi or Turkish forces, perhaps.  A show of pageantry will go a long way to putting on an appearance of success.  Status: Pending.  You have no control over when this happens, and -- as many presidents have found out -- your ability to trumpet real successes of this nature only goes so far.

Eventually, though, you're going to run out of distractions.  It's impossible to disguise the fact that you haven't signed a single major piece of legislation.  It's impossible to disguise the fact that you are failing to achieve the objective metrics you insisted were possible (4% growth, sharply decreased U6 unemployment rate, lower premiums and deductibles, etc).  It's impossible to disguise the fact that the world is less safe than when you began your term.  The country -- and some of your persuadable voters -- will recognize that they've been conned.

This isn't certain, of course.  It's possible that you actually succeed in some or all of these enormous goals, in defiance of every expert on both sides of the aisle.  It's possible that America is far to the right of the Laffer curve, and that massive tax cuts will unleash a pent-up economy, accelerated by slashing every possible regulation without significant negative consequences.  Incredible increases in the tax base (helped by the hard-nosed renegotiation of previous trade deals that revived manufacturing and mining and employed millions more workers) allow you to pay for everything you promised.

But both things cannot be true.

Eventually, you must either defy every expectation and every expert and even mathematics itself... or else you will be exposed.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

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