Monday, March 27, 2017

Listen: what might be next on the agenda.

President Trump and his administration are keenly aware of public perception.  They have been focusing on knocking down as many of his promises as possible, and doing so in the most dramatic way.  Given the frequency with which Team Trump has mentioned the idea of the "first one hundred days" -- the mythical time during which every president is supposed to emulate FDR and revolutionize the country -- it seems clear that they want to look strong when they hit that marker.

Unfortunately for their hopes, it's been sixty-seven days, and the Trump presidency doesn't have much to boast about.

Sure, they can fool some supporters (and maybe even fool themselves) with the flashy executive orders.  But almost all of those orders have been promotional: declaring intentions rather than taking action.  An order declaring, in a confused sort of way, that two existing regulations must be eliminated for every new regulation... well, that doesn't actually accomplish anything, does it?

The only executive orders that would have had really dramatic impact were the Muslim ban orders, and courts have blocked both of them.  Even if they're eventually carried out, months after Trump's first attempt, they're not going to offer much satisfaction.

No, it seems as though a lot of Trumpian hopes were pinned on the Obamacare repeal.  Eliminating much of Obamacare would have been a deeply symbolic victory.  Instead, it became a humiliating failure that played out before the eyes of the nation in slow motion.  The "policy wonk" Speaker created a bill that everyone loathed, including almost every conservative all.  The "closer" President couldn't get a deal done with his own party, much less anyone serious.

At this point, the major achievements of the Trump administration include nominating a SCOTUS justice, the repeal of some regulations, and some minor executive orders.  Along the way, their efforts have been hampered by continual scandals and mis-steps, comical lies, and bizarre behavior.

I promise you, they will want to do something big in the next month.  They have 33 days left in the "first hundred days," and they want something in the history books. The obvious place to look for predictions is Trump's "Contract with the American Voter," a document to which he's adhered closely.  It is explicitly his plan for the first one hundred days, and there's a lot left undone.  However, many of these promises are (frankly) bonkers, and unlikely to ever occur.  There's simply no point in declaring China a "currency manipulator," for example, or for crashing the economy by withdrawing from NAFTA.  So what might happen?

Legislative.  Congress has devoted a lot of time and energy into Obamacare repeal, and that means there's not much time left to draft, debate, and pass bills on anything else (especially with the Easter recess).  If they want to get something done in Congress in the next month, the smart thing to do is introduce existing language from previous bills or think tanks.  In fact, the smart thing is to introduce several new bills in different committees, and see which ones get traction or opposition.  Leadership has stated they want to move on to tax reform, but that will take time... far more time than they have right now, especially since no one agrees on the possible reforms.

Why that's hard: Again, there's only 33 days left.  And there's a week-long recess included in that period.  If they started immediately, they probably still don't have time to pass anything.  Bills must be marked up by committees, debated on the floor, and passed by both houses of Congress... there just isn't time.

Executive.  There are a few major steps that Trump could still take from his list of priorities.  He could use existing spending authority to send a large aid package to Flint, Michigan.  He could get some form of new wall built along the Mexican border, even just a section of it, and do a ribbon-cutting.  He could start canceling or altering visas again in a more targeted fashion (such as by canceling H1-B employment visas), or impose some sort of loyalty test for new citizens.  These actions would make a splash and might seem "big" enough to satiate a president hungry for recognition.

Why that's hard: Without a budget in place, Trump has already done most of the flashy things that he can do unilaterally.  Certainly he can still do a lot of damage day-to-day, but in terms of weighty things that he can promote, the well is running dry.  He'll need to find some new ideas.

Bipartisanship.  After the nasty fight with his own party over healthcare, President Trump has resumed the idea of reaching out to Democrats for votes.  Specifically, infrastructure and prescription drug prices are two points that he has in common with the Democratic mainstream.  If he were to reach out and make a big show of working with Democrats on one of those issues, he would stand a good chance of bypassing his own party's hard-liners.

Why that's hard: For the past couple of months, the Trump administration has delighted in being pointlessly cruel and divisive.  Democrats are going to be loathe to openly support the administration, since their base will hate it.  That's the problem with burning bridges with open hostility... it makes it a lot harder to work with people on the other side of the river.  And of course, conservative Republicans will not be happy if the president attempts to make them irrelevant -- they'll have every reason to try to kill such a bill.

Diplomacy.  There's an avenue of executive action that the Trump administration has mostly neglected: diplomacy.  A significant diplomatic deal -- on something, anything -- could provide a desperately-needed victory.

Why that's hard:  They haven't even begun the necessary efforts to make something like that happen, and they have almost no time left to do so.

In conclusion, then, by far the easiest avenue for Trump to find some significant victories in the next 33 days lies in the avenue of executive action.  While there are a lot of obstacles to making any immediate and significant changes in these areas, thanks to regulatory processes and funding challenges, the president has proven thus far that he has a hard time working with others.  Flashy executive actions allow his team full control and require no compromising.

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