Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016 based on his celebrity status and his reputation as a maverick businessman, vowing to run the country as he ran his real estate empire. The renegotiation of the trade deal with Mexico and Canada formerly known as NAFTA, announced last weekend, is the latest example of how in one striking way, he has been true to his word. The problem is that Trump was a more successful self-promoter than businessman, and the results are on display in the trade deal as well as other aspects of his foreign policy. Early in his career, Trump forged a reputation as a brash and daring risk-taker. But after his first major triumph, the Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, he engaged in a series of high-stakes gambles that, as almost universally predicted, all failed. Whether it was opening casinos in Atlantic City, fielding a team in an upstart professional football league, or launching an eponymous airline, Trump basked in the glory of the opening-night marquee lights, then promptly ran all his ventures into the ground.
Trump’s return from financial and reputational ruin involved a change of tactics. Instead of actually building hotels and towers, he began franchising his name to developers who did the dirty work for him. They assumed the risk and he enjoyed a cut of the profits, boosted by the association with his newfound reality TV celebrity persona. On several fronts, we now see the same dynamic at work in his approach to the foreign policy crises he has provoked since taking office. The renegotiated trade deal, clumsily labeled the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, offers the clearest illustration. Trump has long vilified NAFTA and threatened to pull out of it if Mexico and Canada did not agree to his terms for updating it. After more than a year of acrimonious negotiations, Trump announced the new deal at a press conference Monday, describing it as “the single greatest agreement ever signed,” and adding, “It’s not NAFTA re-done. It’s a brand new deal.” Trump’s sales pitch notwithstanding, it’s more of a NAFTA rebrand than a brand new deal. Moreover, as Kimberly Ann Elliot pointed out in her WPR column yesterday, the terms of the updated agreement closely resemble those of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade pact, negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 other countries, that Trump withdrew from as one of his first official acts as president. In other words, Trump just slapped his name on the façade of an edifice someone else built and claimed credit for it.
It’s likewise still too early to tell if Trump’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea will pay any meaningful dividends in terms of dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal. But if the expectations of the expert community are any guide, here, too, Trump has followed the same playbook, threatening nuclear war before essentially endorsing the Obama administration’s failed policy of “strategic patience,” rebranded as a love story featuring himself and a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un. What are the implications of Trump’s penchant for creating crises, then claiming exaggerated credit for resolving them on terms that closely resemble the status quo ante? Domestically, to his opponents’ chagrin, it could help him solidify support among his base, as well as among softer supporters who were swayed by his often misleading rhetoric but had begun to question his tactics. The outcome of the midterm congressional elections a little more than a month from now will offer a clear indication of whether voters are ready to swallow another dose of Trump’s snake oil in 2020.
Internationally, the implications are both reassuring and worrisome — reassuring because fears that Trump is set to upend and remake the international order might end up being overblown. Trump has introduced an enormous amount of uncertainty to international affairs and damaged US ties with allies in ways that could prove to be lasting. But he has now repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to slap his name on deals and arrangements that closely resemble those he had sworn to tear up. That means that the other major crises on Trump’s docket, rather than escalating, might end up being defused in a similar fashion. Certainly China will try to wind down its own trade war with the US by offering enough superficial concessions to allow Trump to declare victory and come home. Iran, too, might begin to see the appeal of pursuing a Trump-rebranded nuclear accord that differs only marginally from the one he withdrew from in May. It’s possible that the US might have benefited from the approach that fueled Trump’s rise in the early years of his public life. A brash risk-taker who questioned sacred cows and challenged conventional wisdoms might have reinvigorated US foreign policy in the face of a rising China and resurgent Russia. Instead, the later Trump has prevailed, promising much, delivering little and making sure his name is featured prominently on the marquee.
For the first time since the question was asked in 2014, a clear majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents — 57 percent — now say the economic system is fair to most Americans, according to a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center. That represents a 7-point swing from just over two years ago, when a majority of the same population said the system favored powerful interests. Meanwhile a rising number of Democrats, 84 percent, say the economy is unfairly skewed toward the powerful. The results point to an electorate in which the two major camps perceive fundamentally different realities, and the chasm is only widening.
The phenomenon is evident in a midterm campaign unfolding on a split screen. Republicans are pointing to an economy that’s humming by many measures and in which unemployment just hit a 49-year low. Democrats are highlighting rising health-care costs, stubbornly sticky real wage growth, and the economy’s failure to produce higher-paying jobs. And the party is arguing that the GOP has pushed to make a bad situation worse, in part through tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy. The sharpening partisan divide may help explain Democrats’ renewed competitiveness in the Rust Belt, where President Trump built his winning margin in 2016 in part by poaching working-class voters from the Democratic column. As Ron Brownstein wrote in the Atlantic last week, Democratic incumbents in four of those states — Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin — now look like solid favorites. And four Democratic gubernatorial candidates in the region are mounting competitive challenges to Republican incumbents. Voters motivated by a sense that the economy remains rigged in favor of the rich got fresh ammunition last week with the New York Times’s report detailing Trump’s $413 million inheritance. And the president already looked primed to prove more galvanizing for Democrats than an uneven economic recovery.
The overall federal deficit soared 17 percent in fiscal year 2018, hitting $782 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That figure amounts to 3.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 2.4 percent the year before. The federal deficit likely would have ticked higher were it not for the timing of certain payments based on when weekends fell. Without the shifted payments, CBO said, the deficit would have reached $826 billion, a 24 percent rise equivalent to 4.1 percent of GDP. The 2018 fiscal year coincided with the GOP tax law going into effect, cutting back revenues, in addition to a bipartisan spending deal which juiced federal outlays. As spending rose 3 percent, revenues remained flat, CBO said. The administration has brushed off concerns regarding the deficit. This week, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow posited that economic growth would end up bringing down the nation’s debt level. Economists, by and large, disagree. CBO projects that the deficit will near $1 trillion in fiscal year 2019, which began on October 1.
Employers will add 8.3 million jobs over the next five years, but those new positions may add to the hollowing out of the middle class, according to a new study. Most of the jobs that are projected to be created are in low-wage or high-wage industries, according to the CareerBuilder study, which is based on historical and current labor market trends. One-fourth of new jobs will be in middle-wage jobs, and the study found that 369,879 jobs will be lost over the same time period, with the majority in mid-pay fields. Job growth will be seen in roles that have a service or tech element, with the latter providing better pay. The findings suggest that the struggles of many middle-class families aren’t going to disappear any time soon, given job losses due to automation — such as the elimination of some office jobs — and stagnant wages. “Workers across all job levels will need to continually pursue opportunities to upskill in order to maneuver around accelerated shifts in labor demand,” said Irina Novoselsky, CEO of CareerBuilder, in a statement. “This is a particularly pressing issue for middle-wage workers who are at greater risk for becoming displaced and workers in general who want to move up into better-paying jobs.” High-wage and low-wage occupations will both grow at a roughly 5.7 percent rate over the next five years, compared with 3.8 percent for middle-wage jobs.
Are there other ways to combat wealth inequality?Fortunately, tax academics have been thinking about this for a long time. Here are a couple of their ideas: (a) strengthen the estate tax and close the loopholes, (b) get rid of the estate tax and amend the income tax to end loopholes that allow a family to inherit appreciated property tax-free, (c) move to a different form of taxation like an annual wealth tax that more directly tackles the problem, (d) focus on broader taxation like a value-added tax and focus more efforts combating lack of wealth at the bottom, (e) focus more efforts and resources on shutting down tax avoidance by the wealthy.
A new report claims there is a widening gap between people who are financially prepared for retirement and people who are not. The Wall Street Journal cited figures that show a rising number of retirees do not have enough money saved up to keep their standard of living when their careers are over. Fifty-four percent of households that earn between $48,000 and $95,000 annually are ill-prepared, according to data referenced by the Journal. Some of the culprits include rising costs for healthcare, loans for education expenses, and making investing mistakes. The gap is disrupting social circles too. As the Journal noted, residents in retirement communities often feud about where their homeowner’s association dues should be spent — some are in favor of building more amenities, while others would like to see the money used more frugally to only repair things that need fixing. In those same communities, some residents live off millions of dollars in retirement and investment accounts, while others have been forced to get part-time jobs to help make ends meet. It’s been reported that Americans are choosing to retire later than normal so they can continue to sock away money as they plan for the later stages of their lives.
Unlike Senator Susan Collins, who took pages upon pages of text on national television to tell us something we already knew, I will cut right to the chase: I am out of the Republican Party. I will also acknowledge right away what I assume will be the reaction of most of the remaining members of the GOP, ranging from “Good riddance” to “You were never a real Republican,” along with a smattering of “Who are you, anyway?” Those Republicans will have a point. I am not a prominent Republican nor do I play a major role in Republican politics. What I write here are my views alone. As an aside, let me say that I have no love for the Democratic Party, which is torn between totalitarian instincts on one side and complete political malpractice on the other. As a newly minted independent, I will vote for Democrats and Republicans whom I think are decent and well-meaning people.
The Republicans have now eclipsed the Democrats as a threat to the rule of law and to the constitutional norms of American society. They have become all about winning. Winning means not losing, and so instead of acting like a co-equal branch of government responsible for advice and consent, congressional Republicans now act like a parliamentary party facing the constant threat of a vote of no confidence. That it is necessary to place limitations, including self-limitations, on the exercise of power is—or was—a core belief among conservatives. No longer. Raw power, wielded so deftly by Senator Mitch McConnell, is exercised for its own sake, and by that I mean for the sake of fleecing gullible voters on hot-button social issues so that Republicans can stay in power. Of course, the institutional GOP will say that it countenances all of Trump’s many sins, and its own straying from principle, for good reason (including, of course, the holy grail of ending legal abortion). Politics is about the exercise of power. But the new Trumpist GOP is not exercising power in the pursuit of anything resembling principles, and certainly not for conservative or Republican principles.
And most important, on the rule of law, congressional Republicans have utterly collapsed. They have sold their souls, purely at Trump’s behest, living in fear of the dreaded primary challenges that would take them away from the Forbidden City and send them back home to the provinces. Yes, an anti-constitutional senator like Hirono is unnerving, but she’s a piker next to her Republican colleagues, who have completely reversed themselves on everything from the limits of executive power to the independence of the judiciary, all to serve their leader in a way that would make the most devoted cult follower of Kim Jong Un blush. Maybe it’s me. I’m not a Republican anymore, but am I still a conservative? Limited government: check. Strong national defense: check. Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change: check. Belief that people spend their money more wisely than government? That America is an exceptional nation with a global mission? That we are, in fact, a shining city on a hill and an example to others? Check, check, check.
I don’t think what’s good for massive corporations is always good for America. In foreign affairs, I am an institutionalist, a supporter of working through international bodies and agreements. I think that our defense budget is too big, too centered on expensive toys, and that we are still too entranced by nuclear weapons. I believe in the importance of diversity and toleration. I would like a shorter tax code. I would also like people to exhibit some public decorum and keep their shoes on in public. Does this make me a liberal? No. I do not believe that human nature is malleable clay to be reshaped by wise government policy. Many of my views, which flow from that basic conservative idea, are not welcome in a Democratic tribe in the grip of the madness of identity politics. But whatever my concerns about liberals, the true authoritarian muscle is now being flexed by the GOP, in a kind of buzzy, steroidal McCarthyism that lacks even anti-communism as a central organizing principle.
The Republican Party, which controls all three branches of government and yet is addicted to whining about its own victimhood, is now the party of situational ethics and moral relativism in the name of winning at all costs. So I’m out. The Trumpers and the hucksters and the consultants and the hangers-on, like a colony of bees that exist only to sting and die, have swarmed together in a dangerous but suicidal cloud, and when that mindless hive finally extinguishes itself in a blaze of venom, there will be nothing left. I’m a divorced man who is remarried. But love, in some ways, is easier than politics. I spent nearly 40 years as a Republican, a relationship that began when I joined a revitalized GOP that saw itself not as a victim but as the vehicle for lifting America out of the wreckage of the 1970s, defeating the Soviet Union, and extending human freedom at home and abroad. I stayed during the turbulence of the Tea Party tomfoolery. I moved out briefly during the abusive 2012 primaries. But now I’m filing for divorce, and I am taking nothing with me when I go.
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) tore into the GOP on Friday after Republican senators overwhelmingly voted to advance the embattled Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Jolly, appearing on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” on Friday night, said there is no “moderate wing” of the Republican Party. “The important part here about the enthusiasm spike among Republicans is that it is among Republicans, it is not among independents,” Jolly said. “Republicans are now more excited but among the independents, you know what they learned today? There is no moderate wing of the Republican Party. That was the message they learned today.” Jolly’s comments came after only one Republican — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — said she would vote against Kavanaugh’s nomination.
With Brett M. Kavanaugh now on the Supreme Court, Republicans are coalescing around a new closing argument in the midterms: The Democratic response to this whole affair shows them to be lawless, out of control and unfit to govern, so you should keep power in the hands of the GOP, which heroically took on the angry mob in defense of the true victim in this situation: Brett M. Kavanaugh. In so doing, Republicans appear to be gambling that this will save them the Senate, or perhaps even lead to gains there. But it could cost them the House — yet this appears to be a risk Republicans are willing to take, since that appears likely anyway, and holding or expanding their ranks in the Senate gives Republicans a freer hand to keep remaking the judiciary.
New polling out Monday morning — and some intelligence I gleaned from a senior Democratic strategist on how this is all playing — illustrates the situation. A new Post/Schar School poll finds that in 69 battleground House districts across the country, Democratic candidates lead Republican candidates overall by 50 percent to 46 percent. The reason this bodes so well for Democrats is that 63 of these districts are held by Republicans. Indeed, to put this in perspective, note that in these same 69 districts, Republicans led in 2016 by 15 points. Women are driving the Democratic advantage. In these 69 districts, women favor the Democratic candidates by 54 to 40. And once again, the backlash to Trump among college-educated white women that we’ve already seen this cycle appears to be benefiting Democrats: That demographic favors the Dem candidates by an astonishing 62 to 35. Judging by this polling, at least, it’s hard to see how the Kavanaugh fight is helping Republicans in the battle for the House. First, Trump is motivating Democrats more: In these districts, 40 percent of Dems and Dem-leaning independents say Trump is the single most important issue in their vote, vs. only 15 percent who say that on the GOP side. And among those who cite judicial nominations as an extremely important motivator, Dems lead by 50 to 47. Again, almost all these districts are held by Republicans.