Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sacrificing character on the altar of power.

It was the John Cornyn tweet that did it. In response to Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) tweeting "Trumpcare by the numbers: 850% premium spike for elderly, 14 mil lose healthcare in 1st year...", the third term Republican Senator from Texas responded simply, "Fake news." 

Cornyn, former Texas Attorney General and Supreme Court justice, is a man of political substance and pedigree. He could have said many things. He could have insisted that healthcare costs had to be brought under control. He could have suggested that those 14 million people included many who were making a choice in a free market. He could have made the Republican case, but chose instead the most lazy, destructive political epithet of the Trump era: fake news. Cornyn's two word response showed how slippery is the slope on which Republicans find themselves.

Cornyn is not alone; the election of Donald Trump has led many senior Republicans to do and say things they might never have previously imagined. Perhaps no one in Washington has been as diminished by Donald Trump as House Speaker Paul Ryan. Early on, Ryan resisted supporting Trump's nomination. He believes in the old Republican values, and the pain is evident in his voice and manner each time he has found himself coming to Trump's defense. This week, Ryan uttered perhaps his most fatuous defense yet, when he suggested that Trump was "new to this," to explain why Trump might of thought it would be OK to ask the FBI Director to lay off Mike Flynn. But this is the same Donald Trump who spent much of last year castigating Bill Clinton for meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to--Trump asserted--intervene in the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. He new exactly what he was doing.

And so did Paul Ryan. By repeatedly choosing to rise to Trump's defense, Ryan had to know he was choosing political expediency over moral leadership, and ultimately diminishing himself. Yet he has soldiered on. His choices have been in stark contrast with his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has chosen by and large to remain silent, declining to invest his personal credibility as Ryan has done in defense of Trump's most egregious actions.

Character was once the defining attribute of the Republican brand. Character was at the root of Jeb Bush's love for immigrants, when he pushed back against Donald Trump's nationalist rhetoric and doomed his own presidential campaign. Bush believed that immigrants contribute to the strength and character of the nation. They don't whine about their lot in life; they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about it. They seek opportunity and do jobs that others won't. Their struggles breeds character, and character defines everything. As Mitt Romney famously argued five years ago, the GOP was supposed to be the party of personal responsibility, the party railing away about the unfairness of life are the other guys.

As the Republican primary process wore on, and GOP leaders were coming to grips with the inevitability of Trump emerging as their nominee, they told themselves that it was all good. Trump might have ridden the wave of white working class resentments to the nomination, but over time he would surely temper his conduct and demagogic rhetoric. Should he make it to the Oval Office, they would control the legislative process, and he would no doubt sign whatever legislation they put on his desk. At the end of the day, assured themselves, they would impose their will on him.

But Donald Trump never changed. There has been no metamorphosis from a candidate who was willing to say anything, at any time, to rile up his base, to a sober, measured leader of the free world. Perhaps to a greater degree than GOP leaders ever imagined possible--and as evidenced by the little things such as John Cornyn's tweet--it is Donald Trump who has imposed his will, his personality and his values on the Republican Party. One after another, GOP leaders have found themselves rising to his defense, talking or tweeting in ways they never imagined, putting their personal credibility on the line, defending the oft-times indefensible, and finding themselves diminished for it.

Last week, it was Dan Coats' and Mike Rogers' turn. Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee seeking to determine whether the President had sought to interfere with the FBI Russia investigation, the Director of National Intelligence and NSA Director, dissembled and dodged as Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Angus King (I-ME) in turn asked them a simple question: If the White House had not invoked executive privilege, on what legal basis were they refusing to say whether or not they had been asked by the President to influence an ongoing investigation

In the absence of an assertion of executive privilege, Coats and Rogers knew it was their duty to respond forthrightly to a Senate panel, yet they demurred. Exactly why remains unclear. "I'm not sure I have a legal basis," was the best Dan Coats could come up with. Caught in a no-man's land and visibly mortified by their own conduct as they defied their legal and moral obligation to respond to the questions, the two men who have built reputations for character and integrity across both sides of the aisle watched all they had built lie smoldering in ashes on the committee room floor.

The next day, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders jumped to Donald Trump's defense against Comey's suggestion that the President had lied. "I can definitively say the president is not a liar. It’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked." 

Huckabee Sanders--a smart, dedicated advocate, weened in politics from the womb--was trying valiantly to suggest something that in a normal year might have had some currency--that for a President to lie is a grave matter, and to accuse a president of lying is inherently insulting and degrading of the institution. Bill Clinton lied and he was impeached for it, and there were cries of outrage when Joe Wilson called Barack Obama a liar. But her premise was backwards. The institution of the presidency does not confer character and integrity on the occupant of the Oval Office; rather, it is our hope each four years that the individual that we elect will confirm the faith that has been placed in them by the character and integrity that he or she brings to the office. As much as she and others might wish it otherwise, character and integrity are not Donald Trump's long suits, and he has proven his bona fides as a liar at the highest level.

That is not a partisan statement, and those who repeatedly find themselves rushing to the ramparts in defense of their President should remember that calling Donald Trump a liar is not a new charge, and certainly not one levied by Democrats alone. Trump built his political brand promoting conspiracy theories and lies, and has never looked back. Before he won the Republican nomination, the assessment within the GOP of Trump as a pathological liar and narcissist was widely and publicly accepted.

This weekend, a YouGuv poll reported that only 15% of the electorate believed Trump's assertion that he did not demand a loyalty pledge from Comey. While the poll suggested that 80% of Republicans view the President favorably, fewer than one in four believed that Comey had lied when he said that Trump asked him for a loyalty pledge. When Trump said that he was prepared "one-hundred percent, under oath" to testify that James Comey had lied, even many among Trump's most devoted supporters apparently concluded, 'Yeah, Trump has no compunction about lying, even under oath.'

Prominent conservative and RedState founder Erick Erickson saw the implications of the nomination of Donald Trump early on in the primary season. Assessing the landscape and seeing the path that lay ahead, he concluded that the Republican Party owed  Bill Clinton an apology. After impeaching Bill Clinton over lies and womanizing, they were "embracing a pathological liar and womanizer... Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.” 

But it is worse that that. It is not just that Donald Trump is remaking it in his own image, it is that he is testing the character and integrity of GOP leaders across the country, and far to many are failing the test. This week, Dan Coats and Mike Rogers provided a stark reminder to others that reputations for character and integrity that have built over the course of careers are ephemeral. They can be lost in a moment, and once lost may be hard to reclaim.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Being anti-Trump is not enough.

The morning onslaught of emails summarizing the starting point for the day, letting me know that this is day 126 of the Trump presidency. Politico. Axios. The Daily. The Hive. RedState. ZeroHedge. Sean Hannity (just to see who the Clintons killed recently). The breathless breaking news tweets, podcasts and texts. The daily wraps making sure we did not miss a thing, lest we were distracted by work.

The Trump presidency has become the most festering, counterproductive, time sink since the invention of Facebook, when the notion of a time sink burst into our vocabulary.

Two weeks ago, conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, suggesting that the political battleground has shifted from those who are anti-Trump versus those who are pro-Trump, to those who are anti-Trump versus those who are anti-anti-Trump. Faced with a president who is proving objectionable or incompetent to many in his own party, Republicans are increasingly motivated as much by the rage and antics of Democrats as anything else. As if to make Sykes' point, the most recent Quinnipiac Poll suggests that Republican approval of Donald Trump is now lower than their disapproval of Democrats in Congress.

For a few months, from election day on past the inauguration, where Donald Trump pronounced his dark vision of the nation from the presidential pulpit, the furious reaction to what appeared to be the rise of the authoritarian right was warranted. But the influence of Steve Bannon and the threat of the alt-right appear to have waned, as the challenges of governing have overwhelmed the competence of a President whose political skills revolved around hyperbolic rhetoric and conspiracy mongering, and whose real world management skills were limited to running a tightly controlled family business.

After those furious first few months, the Trump fever has broken. Fears that democratic institutions might not be up to the task have proven to be ill-founded. The federal judiciary has played its role as proscribed, and the media has refused to back down from the name calling and derision from the Oval Office. Perhaps Donald Trump's greatest misjudgment was underestimating Rod Rosenstein, who has now firmly headed Trump's presidency down a new path.

The Trump presidency is now lapsing into something that may be less satisfying for Democrats to contend with: conservative government. MSNBC talk show host and former conservative member of Congress Joe Scarborough may rail on about the Republican Party having been taken over by a long-time Democrat, but the infrastructure of the Trump administration is deeply conservative, and fully prepared to do its best to support the agenda of Republican majorities in Congress. It is what political parties get to do when they win elections; they get to pass laws.

According to CBS News Nation Tracker polling, public attitudes toward the idea of Democrats winning back the House of Representatives next year has been highly ambivalent. Half of those polled think that a Democrat Congress would provide a needed check on President Trump, while half suggested it would simply lead to more gridlock or bad policies in Congress.

This is a devastating message to which Democrats should be paying close attention. Driven by anti-Trump rage, party activists are rapidly--and deliberately--undermining their party's ability to appeal to the political center. Their rage against Trump is accompanied by continuing bitterness over Bill and Hillary Clinton's control over the Democratic National Committee that rigged the system in favor of Hillary's nomination.

Penned in by activists on the left, Democrat leaders seem determined to ignore the yawning chasm of voters alienated both by Trump, and his sycophants in Congress, and the activist left. Rather than reaching out to broaden a prospective Democratic coalition, the Democrats are becoming a less-tolerant, narrower political party. Every time Chuck Schumer stands in front of a microphone to vilify this or that Trumpian outrage, he plays into the dynamic that Sykes described. Every time Nancy Pelosi demands that Sean Spicer or some other Trump factotum resign for this or that stupid statement, she devalues her own currency and diminishes her appeal beyond the Democratic Party base as aspiring Speaker of the House.

Just as Democrats are turning their back on the political center, Donald Trump seems to be making a concerted effort to alienate his own devoted followers and the faith they have invested in him. Trump's followers may have clamored for him to repeal Obamacare, but it remains to be seen if their faith in him will endure in the event that the House healthcare plan makes its way into law and millions of those supporters lose their health insurance, or take a loved one to the hospital only to find that their new Trumpcare insurance policies no longer provide hospitalization or emergency coverage. 

The problem that Democrats face is that even if Donald Trump turns his back on his promise to be the president for the working class and rural America, and instead delivers everything that the Republican donor class could have hoped for, that will not necessarily inure to the benefit of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump violating the trust that working class and rural Americans invested in him will not by extension ameliorate the distrust that those Americans feel toward Democrats. 

It may be that Senate Republicans will save Trump from himself. If they balk at Trump's healthcare plans and his tax plans and his budget cuts, Trump's dedicated voters may never know how close they came to seeing things get much worse for them than they already are. But who is going to save Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi? As the threat to democratic institutions fade, and the urgency of the morning emails and tweetstorms subside, when are Democratic leaders going to pull back from all-Trump-all-the-time, and contemplate how they plan to reach out and broaden the Democratic Party into a viable majority coalition.

The 2018 mid-term election may be on everybody's minds, but it is the 2020 election that looms largest. Not the presidential election, but rather the governors and state legislature races that will determine the next round of decennial redistricting, and, in their wake, the landscape of our politics for the ensuing decade. Anti-Trump fever, which began as a tremendous motivating moment for Democrats, has become a trap. Far too many remain consumed with matters that now should be left to Robert Mueller, while far too few seem focused on the future of the Democrat agenda, message and coalition. That is the urgent task at hand if Democrats want to win what Republicans now have: majorities in Congress and the ability to pass laws.

As it stands today--as Charlie Sykes has warned--every time Chuck Schumer feels that irresistible draw to a microphone to launch one more attack on Donald Trump, he is not doing his party any favors. Instead, he is playing into the anti-anti-Trump narrative and increasing the likelihood that Republicans will once again win the decennial restricting battles, and Donald Trump will be a two-term president.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Killing Obamacare.

Obamacare is not dead yet, but Donald Trump is close to achieving his goal. If it was not killed on Inauguration Day--when Trump signed his executive order that, among other things, relaxed enforcement of the individual mandate--it will be, if, as reports have suggested, he decides to terminate the Affordable Care Act subsidies paid to insurance companies. Ending those payments, which subsidize deductibles for low-income populations, should effectively end the viability of the insurance exchanges created by the ACA that provide access to health insurance for low income families.

When Donald Trump supported a single payer approach--before he opposed it--he recognized that unless and until we are willing to let people die in the street, healthcare costs are something for which the entire nation is ultimately on the hook. If, at the end of the day, we are all going to wind up paying those costs, it is the cost structure itself that should be the focus of the healthcare discussion, rather than legislation that does little more than shifting costs and risks from one place to another.

While the ACA--Obamacare--covers a wide range of healthcare issues, at its essence it was built around two essential elements: first, prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to, or charging differential insurance rates for, people with pre-existing conditions, and, second, requiring that everyone purchase health insurance--whether through employers who are required to provide coverage or as individuals--to ensure that young, healthy people become part of the health insurance system. The objective was to create a single "community rating" structure within which rates would be established. The two elements worked in tandem, as they would enable insurance companies to offset the higher costs of less healthy insured populations, including those with pre-existing conditions--whose premiums would not be high enough to fund their expected costs--with revenues from healthier populations, who by definition would pay more into the system in premiums than they would receive back in benefits.

Problems began for participating insurance companies when fewer healthy individuals signed up than projected, undermining the expected economic balance of the program. The January executive order validated insurer concerns over the political risks inherent in participation in the newly created healthcare exchanges, and further undermined the economic tradeoff, leaving insurers with the prospect of losing the upside of original bargain--the young, healthy customers who would get back far less than they paid in--while still on the hook for the higher cost populations they were obligated to underwrite. The prospect of terminating the subsidy payments to insurers--as Donald Trump reaffirmed this week--promises to be the last straw for participating insurance companies; if the January executive order constituted two bullets to the chest of Obamacare, the termination of the subsidizes looms to be the bullet to the head.

Listening to Republican struggles to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, one could easily draw the conclusion--as I'm sure many Americans have--that Obamacare is at the root of healthcare cost escalation, however that is little more than political rhetoric. As illustrated in the graph here, National Health Expenditures have risen steadily over the past half-century, both in dollar terms and as a percent of the nation's gross domestic product (depicted by the solid purple line). Over the years, various healthcare reforms have sought to restructure how healthcare is funded and redistribute how the cost burden is shared across the population. The most dramatic reforms were the passage of Medicare, which put the funding of healthcare for the elderly on the back of the federal government, and Medicaid, which created a funding partnership between the federal government and the states for funding healthcare costs for those less able to pay. Obamacare, as it turns out, has had little impact on the public share of healthcare funding (shown in the red dotted line) which has similarly grown steadily over the years.

As much as Congress and the media talk about healthcare reform, Obamacare and its proposed replacement are less about the healthcare system overall than about the health insurance piece of the puzzle. That is to say, it is about who pays and how risks and costs are allocated, rather than about the provision of healthcare itself. As illustrated here, the preponderance of healthcare coverage in the United States is provided through private insurers, along with Medicare and Medicaid. Along with expanding Medicaid eligibility, the essence of Obamacare was to create a structure that would force healthier Americans that had previously chosen to remain uninsured to buy health insurance from private insurers in order to improve access for and reduce the cost paid by less healthy portions of the population.

While forcing one part of the population to fund the cost of services to another part of the population has been made by some to sound nefarious, we do it all the time. Risk and cost transfers across populations are commonplace in the provision of public services and taxation. Some public utilities--water and sewer systems come to mind--are able to charge fees on a user basis with little cross-subsidization. Other public services have subsidies inherent in their taxation and service provision models--essentially raising funds based on ability to pay, with little or no regard to the direct benefit received.

Public education, for example, is funded primarily by property taxes at the local level, and household funding contributions reflect differential wealth levels across a community, as calculated by home assessed values. Payment of those taxes by all homeowners is compulsory, and no consideration is given to whether a household has many children or no children; whether those children attend public schools or not; or whether a child has special needs that place a greater cost burden on the school district.

We have similar systems of cross-subsidization of service costs at all levels of government. Most obviously, on account of the progressive federal income tax, wealthy Americans pay the lion's share of federal taxes. According to the Congressional Budget Office data, the top 20% of taxpayers pay 69% of federal taxes, and the top 1% pay 25% of all federal taxes. Taking into account the distribution of taxes paid and direct services received--according to a Tax Foundation analysis--the federal government redistributes $2 trillion annually from the wealthier 40% of families to the less wealthy 60%. Similar transfers of tax dollars across populations are inherent in our public finance structure, including from wealthier, predominantly blue states, to less wealthy red states through the federal budget, and within states from urban centers to rural communities.

At a much publicized town meeting in early May, Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID) caused an uproar when he asserted--in response to the suggestion that the healthcare bill passed by the House would result in millions of families losing access to health insurance--that "nobody dies because they don't have access to health care." The next day, Labrador explained his response by pointing out that federal law requires that hospital emergency rooms treat anyone who shows up with a serious condition, regardless of ability to pay.

Labrador's explanation illustrated the central lie underpinning the House legislation: it really doesn't fix anything. GOP anger at Obamacare focused in part on the individual mandate, which forced healthy participants to effectively subsidize the cost of insuring those with pre-existing conditions. The House bill proposes to alleviate the share of those costs born by that young, healthy population, by transferring those costs and risks to others, notably, as Labrador suggests, to hospitals, which would become saddled with significant increases in "uncompensated care" costs. Accordingly, the House proposal is similar to an unfunded tax cut; it reduces the burden on one sector of the population, while preferring to ignore the other side of the ledger, and the fact that someday, someone will have to pay the price for the benefit that was conferred.

GOP obsession with the individual mandate as a fundamental violation of individual liberty ignores the fact that healthy individuals are already compelled to participate in group health insurance provided by employers. The notion that individual participation is part of a broader programatic structure that shifts costs and risks across populations is also nothing new. As noted above, we transfer costs from one group of people to another all the time. In the healthcare sector, in particular, funding for Medicare, Medicate and veterans healthcare--which now comprise 50% of National Health Expenditures--are funded from broad based tax revenues.

In addition to those direct expenditures, we provide massive public subsidies to the private insurance market though the tax deductibility of employer-provided healthcare. When Obamacare added tax credits for individuals, in conjunction with the individual mandate, it was simply leveling the playing field. While it is reasonable to argue that the individual mandate is inappropriately narrow in scope--as it essentially constitutes an income transfer from people in their 20s and 30s to people in their 40s and 50s, through age 65, when they become eligible for Medicare--it is not inherently different than the myriad other ways that we transfer costs and benefits across populations. In particular, it mirrors those programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, that are funded on a life-cycle basis, wherein people pay in when they are younger and receive benefits when they are older.

As Donald Trump has pointed out, healthcare is more complicated than it might seem to be. The underlying problem is that at the end of the day—unless we are going to let people die in the streets—healthcare costs are something for which the entire nation is ultimately on the hook. Given that is the case, Congress cannot pretend to have provided a real solution if all it has done is to shift costs and risks from one place to another.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Titanic. In real time.

Shortly after taking office as the 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson briefly considered firing then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. But Johnson was no fool, he knew that Hoover kept files of dirt on hundreds of politicians. LBJ decided to keep him on. "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out," the 36th President famously concluded, "than outside the tent pissing in."

That is not the path that Donald Trump has chosen. Rather than thinking through the consequences of firing the man overseeing the Russia-Trump investigation, Trump threw caution to the wind and decided to unceremoniously and publicly fire his FBI Director. 

One week into his presidency, Trump summoned then-FBI Director Comey to dinner in the White House, where, like a newly installed third-world dictator, asked Comey to "pledge his loyalty" to him. Trump had good reason for concern. Two weeks earlier, Comey had privately briefed Trump on the infamous Russia dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele. The dossier described the involvement of Trump campaign officials in Russia's efforts to sway the results of the US presidential election, and the FBI was clearly taking it seriously enough to bring it to Trump's attention. 

As in all matters related to the Russia affair, there was an inherent asymmetry in information between the two men. Donald Trump, after all, knew the truth of whatever had transpired between his campaign and Russia's efforts to sway our election, while James Comey was the FBI Director tasked with ferreting out the truth. 

If Chris Steele's dossier is substantially correct--if there was, in fact, coordination between senior members of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's inner circle to undermine Hillary Clinton--an independent James Comey, unbound by a pledge of fealty to the President, represented an existential threat to Trump's presidency. If, on the other hand, the Steele dossier is a complete fabrication, and was never any involvement by Trump associates in Russia's efforts to meddle in our election, as Trump has insisted, then Trump had nothing to fear from Comey, and, in particular, nothing that would make firing Comey worth the political cost. At that dinner--as at the time that Comey briefed Trump about the dossier--Trump knew the truth, while Comey did not. 

We have no idea whether in the intervening months James Comey has developed any greater insights into what actually transpired with respect to Russian meddling and the Trump campaign. All we know is that based on the reporting over the past two days, it is apparent that after that January dinner--when Comey apparently declined to pledge his loyalty to Trump--both Trump and Comey believed that it was only a matter of time before the President fired Comey.

The peculiar aspect of Comey's firing was how Trump chose to handle it. Instead of replacing Comey in a respectful and orderly manner, Trump clearly decided to do it in as disrespectful manner as he could. There was no face to face meeting, not even a phone call. Comey was not offered a chance to resign to spend more time with his family--the norm in these situations--or given the respectful send-off normally accorded a person in his position. Instead, Trump had his long-time bodyguard deliver the letter firing Comey to the FBI headquarters while Comey was out of town. Comey actually learned about his firing from a cable news broadcast while he was giving a presentation at the FBI office in Los Angeles. 

It was not enough to unceremoniously show Comey the door, Trump then made sure to insult and kick him on the way out. He went out of his way to attack Comey on Twitter, with his own tweets as well as retweeting a hit piece on Comey circulated by the Drudge Report. Then--with no sense of irony--he went on to deride Comey as a grandstander and a showboat. 

Comey is an institutionalist, and he understood from the outset that, notwithstanding his 10-year appointment, he served at the pleasure of the President, and could be dismissed at any time. It seems likely that if Trump had dismissed him with the respect and decorum due a person of his stature, Comey would have exited the stage quietly and let his successor deal with Russia, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In contrast with LBJ's acknowledgement that it is best not to pick a fight with a man who has the capacity to retaliate, Trump has gone out of his way to pick a fight with Comey.

Trump seems to believe that he can defeat Comey one-on-one in the court of public opinion, but he has a tin ear when it comes to understanding the consequences of his own declining personal credibility. His only contact with the public is his campaign rallies, where his adoring supporters mislead him into believing that he has his finger on the pulse of the nation, and that the only problem he has is with Democrats who remain embittered over the election outcome. His problems, however, go much deeper than that.

Trump Rally: Harrisburg, PA. Plenty of empty seats.
The Quinnipiac Poll released this week showed a continued decline in Trump's poll numbers, with his generic job approval rating down to 36% job approval, with only 33% of those polled believing he is honest. The Republican Congress represents Trump's Maginot Line against whatever might transpire with respect to investigations into the Russia affair. Until now, Republicans in Congress have been terrified of crossing Trump and his supporters, but that fear will ebb as Trump's poll numbers decline and members look to protect themselves as their reelection in 2018 approaches. In a similar vein, Republicans in Congress cannot have missed the large number of empty seats at Trump's most recent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Those empty seats mirrored the 10% decline in support among the Trump base evidenced in the Q-poll.

LBJ's admonition threatens to loom large over the coming weeks. By firing Comey, Trump has accomplished the opposite of what he intended; he put the Russia investigation on the front burner, and he has done so at a moment when his hold over Republicans in Congress is beginning to wane. By his own actions and insults, he has made an enemy of the man who knows the details of that investigation better than anyone. And he has removed any obligation for James Comey to keep what he knows to himself. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to imagine that Comey is not going to make Trump regret his words.

Read it at the HuffPost.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

George Washington's fateful warning.

Perhaps there is no polling on deep yearning, but a fair share of American had to have watched the French election that culminated on Sunday with a sense of sadness. Faced with declining popular support for the mainstream conservative and liberal political parties, and a rising threat from the far right, those mainstream political parties came together to support a moderate centrist alternative. It could not happen here.

Early last year, as he considered launching his independent bid for the presidency, Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker and government finance minister who is now the President-elect of France, looked at a political landscape that was not so different from ours. The demographics of discontent--stemming from globalization and immigration--and resentments of urban elites in France, mirror those that culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. French politics--like ours--had historically been dominated by traditional center-left and center-right political parties that had lost their luster, while--as across Europe--an energized nationalist populism was growing on the right. 

Against that backdrop, Macron ran a stridently centrist campaign: pro-trade, pro-Euro and pro-European Union. In the first round of voting, he won 24% of the vote against a field that included candidates from the major parties and Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing National Front. He then defeated Le Pen 66% to 34% in the second round run-off. 

The closest parallel in our politics might be Michael Bloomberg. An economic conservative and social liberal, Bloomberg took a long look at the growing dysfunction of our politics--and the yawning chasm of dissatisfied voters stranded between a Democratic Party that has headed to the left and a Republican Party that has long veered to the right--and in 2016 he considered an independent bid for the presidency. 

But we are not France; ours is winner take all system--for the most part--on a state by state basis. We do not have a provision for run-off elections among the top two finishers that might allow an independent challenger to build an alignment of moderates from both parties, as took place in France. As Marco Rubio observed when he explained why he was endorsing Donald Trump--a man whom Rubio had railed against as a fraud and a con man--our system forces a binary choice on Election Day, when the animosities engendered by the political parties come into vivid relief and ultimately rule the day. Against that backdrop, Bloomberg decided not to run. 

In his Farewell Address, George Washington reflected on the destructive consequences of party politics. "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge... is itself a frightful despotism... It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another."

But for the idiom of the day, Washington's words could have been written this week. The frantic drive to repeal Obamacare, on display over the past month, has been nothing if not sharpened by the spirit of revenge, distracted public councils, ill-founded jealousies and false alarms. House Republicans finally came together to pass legislation that had no grounding in either sound policy or politics--it was driven simply by a misguided sense of party loyalty.

Republicans have been promising to repeal and replace Obamacare for seven years. What has been unclear from the outset is how much of the repeal and replace urgency was driven by hatred of the law itself, and the changes to health insurance markets that it engendered, or simply hatred of Barack Obama himself. Public polling over the years has shown greater public support for the Affordable Care Act than for Obamacare--two different names for the legislation--suggesting that opposition to the Affordable Care Act among the Republican base might not be as strident as many in the GOP came to believe it was. 

The oddity of the Trump presidency has been the willingness of Republicans to follow him in lock-step, even if the loyalty only goes one way. House Republicans acceded to Trump's demand that they take a second shot at passing repeal and replace legislation, even as many saw rising anger among their constituents as it became apparent that the proposed legislation might undermine their access to health insurance. For Trump, it was not about the details of the legislation, but rather about having a televised Rose Garden event where he could tout his victory. And if the price of a Rose Garden ceremony is greater suffering among his supporters in eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan--or even the loss of GOP control of the House--that is a price he is willing to pay.

The firing of Jim Comey is going to escalate the demands of party loyalty to new heights. As with the healthcare vote, the President will demand party loyalty on an issue that benefits him alone, and could easily damage the political futures of those who accede to his demands. Few in the GOP can truly have believed Trump's initial explanation that he fired Comey because of Comey's conduct of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and evidence is increasingly pointing to the original sin of the Trump campaign: Russia. Republicans in Congress may not know what happened with respect to Trump campaign collaboration with Russia in its efforts to influence our presidential election, but they do know that Donald Trump wants those investigations to stop, and he needs their help to make that happen.

The ball now rests firmly with Republicans in Congress. Marco Rubio never relented on his conclusion that Donald Trump is a con man and a fraud, he simply embraced Trump as his party's con man and fraud. With the firing of James Comey, however, Rubio and his brethren will have a tougher assessment to make. As George Washington warned, party politics can lead people down a precarious path, where loyalty to party overwhelms loyalty to country, "and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty." Two hundred thirty years later, Washington's words ring true.

In France, with its different election structure, two largest political parties set aside their differences and turned their energy toward the election of a centrist, rather than risk the rise of a right-wing populist demagogue. Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for our nation's political institutions and the constitutional separation of powers, and he has shown little tolerance for those who take an independent stance against his own interests--legal, political, financial or otherwise. At some point, Republicans in Congress will come to realize that their blind loyalty is a fools errand; Donald Trump has no interest in them, in their goals, in their reelections, or in their party. He has taken their measure, and he has decided that they do not have the courage to defy him. They are but means to his ends. As long as that remains true, both they and the nation, as George Washington foresaw, may pay a terrible price.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The corrosive consequence of the politics of tax cuts.

Saul Steinberg, "View of the World from 9th Avenue"

According to the New York Times, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor needs a $28 billion overhaul, including, most significantly, the replacement tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey. The significance of the tunnel project is hard to overstate, yet Republicans in Congress--now with White House backing--appear almost gleeful at the prospect of defunding the railroad and crippling the region. Perhaps it is payback for the famous Saul Steinberg's New Yorker cover and all that it represents; GOP members of Congress from the flyover states are itching to tell Amtrak to go f--k itself.

It is an odd way to say thank you. The Northeast Corridor is an essential transportation artery in one of the two most economically vital regions--along with California--that drive the nation's economy, and in terms of annual contributions to the federal government, it stands alone. Given the disproportionate amount of funding that the region contributes to the federal government, one would not think that supporting badly need capital investment required by that critical rail link was too much to ask.

Associated Press: April 17, 2017
A quick look at the Associated Press's list of per capita federal taxes paid by states tells the story. The states served by the Northeast Corridor--from north to south--Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland represent eight of the fourteen leading states in terms of federal taxes paid per resident. 

Year in and year out, those states--along with most of their blue state brethren--are net payers of federal taxes while most red states take out more than they pay in. It would be one thing if there was a hint of appreciation expressed by those deep red states to the productive states that provide all that money, but listening to the braying coming from the halls of Congress these days--and the hostility to funding Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is just one example--one would think that it was the red states that were supporting the rest of the country. 

With Republicans in full control, the Northeast Corridor states are taking it on the chin. It would be one thing if the GOP simply wanted to take the axe to Amtrak--it has been a favored target of budget cutters for decades--but now Republicans are determined to stick it to the blue states on the tax side as well. 

Right at the top of the GOP tax reform agenda--and reflected in the Trump tax plan as well--is eliminating the federal deductibility of state and local taxes. This is both a money grab and a political power play. As illustrated in the "tax burden" graphic shown here, the states that pay the most federal taxes per capita--the Northeast Corridor, Midwest and West Coast--tend to have higher state and local taxes than the lower-tax "taker" states as well. For decades, conservative economists such as Art Laffer, Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow have argued that it was only a matter of time before those low tax red states became the shining stars of economic growth.

Yet, for some reason, despite low taxes--and decades of subsidies from the high tax states--the future never comes. Federal taxes paid per capita here are directly tied to income per capita of each state, and--despite the predictions of moralizing tax cutters--those Northeast Corridor states, from Taxachusetts down to Maryland, continue to produce higher real incomes across their populations and subsidize those low tax, conservative shining stars of Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, and their brethren. For example, as illustrated in the graph here, per capita incomes in Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina remain essentially unchanged compared to New York State since 1970, a half century ago.

FRED Economic Data: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
For decades now--as documented by the conservative Tax Foundation--more productive blue states have seen their money flow to less productive red states. Yet somehow those red state Republicans get away with saying--as we now hear in the tax reform discussions on Capitol Hill--that the deductibility of state and local taxes represents a subsidy by the low tax to the high tax states. While this might be true in a narrow mathematical sense, whatever benefit that deduction provides to taxpayers in high tax states is a pittance compared to the overwhelming subsidies that flow the other way.

It is not that Republican lawmakers object to some states subsidizing others--after all, Republicans are more likely to represent taker states than payor states. What those Republicans object to is subsidizing what they assert is morally bad behavior on the part of blue states: taxing citizens to pay for government. 

Yet, blue state Democrats look at the same circumstances and see a very different picture. From their vantage point, those higher taxes that Republicans find objectionable go in large part to fund investments in K-12 and higher education that directly contribute to the higher real incomes in blue states--which in turn have resulted in the higher per capita federal tax payments that are used, in part, to subsidize red states. In the view of those blue state Democrats, red state politicians who prioritize low taxes--and as a consequence suppressing education funding--are making policy choices that result in lower levels of education attainment across their communities, and contribute to lower real incomes and less financial security over time.  

In the wake of a presidential election that swung on the devastation wrecked by globalization on less educated populations, one might have imagined that elected officials from those ravaged communities would be focused on the urgency of investments in education to support community economic vitality and family financial security. But instead of pointing to the factors that produce economic success and security over the long term--for individuals, families and communities--we just hear more of the same old, same old, as red state politicians continue to hector blue states about what taxes cost, rather than what they produce.

To the extent that the emphasis on low taxes has undermined educational attainment in red state America, the anti-tax Reagan Revolution has turned the GOP into a fount of public policy moralism that has undermined the economic success and security of those communities that it represents. In the modern world, where capital flows to those places that offer the greatest opportunity for an economic return, low taxes are not enough; investments in education and human capital matter. Now, more than ever, investments in primary, secondary and higher education have become critical drivers of long-term economic growth at the state level. 

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trump economic tsar Gary Cohn introduced the key parameters of Donald Trump's tax cut plan. As in all things Trump, the proposed plan was billed as the largest ever. As if on cue, two days after the press conference introducing the plan, first quarter economic growth came it at a 0.7% annualized rate, an unexpected slowdown in economic growth that will surely lead to clamoring among Republicans in support of something approximating Trump's tax proposals.

The problem is that for the Trump base--less educated working class whites--taxes are not the problem and tax reform will not cure what ails them. Despite Trump's American Carnage rhetoric--and the urgency that Mnuchin and Cohn sought to convey--the US economy has been the envy of the advanced economies in its resiliency and rebound from the 2008 financial collapse. The major constraint facing domestic economic expansion is not availability of capital or tax treatment of corporate profits, but tight labor markets and availability of skilled labor. To the extent that proposed tax cuts accelerate US corporate investment and job creation, the primary impact is likely to be increased upward pressures on wages for existing skilled workers rather than the return of jobs to the hardest hit rural communities that have been the focal point of the Trump phenomenon.

Deloitte: Global Manu­facturing Competi­tiveness Index
Even as the Tax Foundation, Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore and others have bemoaned the lack of competitiveness of the US corporate tax structure as they make the case for Trump's massive tax cuts, the Boston Consulting GroupDeloitte (shown here) and McKinsey have published studies showing that the United States offers one of, if not the most, attractive climate for new investment across the globe. Those studies conclude that manufacturing costs in the United States today--driven by factors including rising wages in developing countries, low domestic energy costs, and rising productivity--are only marginally higher than in China, with trends that continue to improve.

Donald Trump's populist politics have turned the discussion of US competitiveness and job creation on its head. The carnage of Trump's imagination is not a national phenomenon, but a localized one. Nationally, the unemployment rate is low and middle-class real incomes are growing, even as rural communities have been devastated by economic trends. Rather than encouraging families and communities to understand the critical importance of investment in education to real income growth and security over the long-term, Trump--like generations of Republicans before him--has chosen instead to play upon the resentments of less educated voters in exurban and rural areas toward economic elites in the relatively successful blue states and urban centers, while promoting tax cuts that offer little or no long-term value to them or their communities. 

The states along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor have done well by their residents over the years. Decade after decade, those states have contributed far more to the federal kitty than they have taken out. Yet for all their success--and the billions of dollars they pour into the pockets of red state taxpayers year after year--they continue to be subject to resentment and derision from Republicans in Congress, who take their money and then tell them to pay for their own railroad. Those same politicians, in pursuit of their own advancement, ignore the critical links between educational attainment, and family incomes and financial security, and push policies of cutting taxes rather than investments in education that might improve the welfare and financial security of their constituents over time.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Trump tax plan: nothing for his base, and they love him for it.

According to Gallup this week, 57% of Americans believe that their federal income taxes are too high. That fact alone should help put the wind at the backs of members of Congress pushing for tax cuts this year. The Trump administration presented its "plan" this week, and that plan should provide further impetus for action.

On the face of it, the Trump plan is silly. By some estimates, the proposed cuts would cost upwards of $6 trillion over the ten-year scoring window. No doubt, that number will be trimmed down when "dynamic scoring" is taken into account. Trump's original plan was twice as silly--$12 trillion in tax cuts--and at the time the Tax Foundation scored the cost as just over $10 trillion, taking into account the impact of tax cuts on economic growth. By extension, Trump's new $6 trillion plan might only cost $5 trillion. But whether the number is $6 trillion or $5 trillion, it isn't budget neutral by any extent.

Six trillion might sound like a lot in terms of increasing the deficit, but it also buys a lot of friends. For deficit hawks in Congress--House Speaker Paul Ryan most notably, but also the Freedom Caucus and those with roots in the anti-debt Tea Party--this looms to be a come-to-Jesus moment. Donald Trump ran on deficit-busting tax cuts, and he was elected on deficit-busting tax cuts. If those members of Congress want to face down the President, they are going to have to stand up to a lot of high paid lobbyists and powerful industry groups--to say nothing of a lot of lies and silliness about dynamic scoring--along the way. As Bruce Bartlett--the author of the Reagan tax cuts and Bush 41 advisor--has observed, tax cuts have long since lost their supply side justification, they are all just about politics now.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn did their best to sell the plan as being about economic growth, and avoid micro-details (to use Gary Cohn's word) about who--most notably the President--would benefit. What they lacked in details, they made up for with adjectives. Massive. Enormous. Critical. Huge. This is language right in Donald Trump's wheelhouse, and if deficit hawks were troubled by size of the plan, they must also know that big plans garner lots of supporters, and to call Trump's tax plan big is an understatement. It is, in fact, huge.

Donald Trump understands as well as any politician in memory exactly who has supported him and what they are looking for in return for that support. He won the evangelical vote by promising Neil Gorsuch--metaphorically speaking--and he delivered. He built his "base" by alternately appealing to and stoking the resentments of white working class voters, and each day he looks for ways to maintain that visceral connection. And he won the large swath of economic conservatives--that cohort of voters motivated by tax cuts and less restrictive federal regulation--on the prospect of both. This week, he put his money where his mouth is. Or, more accurately, someone else's money--notably future taxpayers who someday will have to pick up the $6 trillion tab should the proposed tax cut package make it to his desk.

Those who dismiss the possibility of Trump's plan--or a reasonable facsimile--being signed into law should consider what money can buy. The Trump plan contains truly huge cuts in corporate taxes--sufficient alone to keep industry groups and K Street lobbying firms working overtime for months to come. Perhaps even more significant is the proposal to tax pass-through income--partnerships, Subchapter S corps and the like--at the new 15% corporate rate. For those who complained that Trump has benefited over the years from the panoply of tax breaks that privilege real estate investors, he is now proposing to level the playing field not by getting rid of those tax breaks, but instead by offering similar benefits to millions of small business and professional firms. This is a gift of enormous value that will not only entice many heretofore reluctant supporters to his side, but, if passed, should secure the support of those voters four years from now, should Democrats continue down the path to the left at the urging of their activist base.

From early on in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump swore that he would end the carried interest loophole that effectively allows many in the investment, venture capital and private equity worlds to have their ordinary income taxed at the lower, capital gains tax rate. Attacking the carried interest loophole was seen by some as political cover for Trump's first, $12 trillion tax cut plan. While the plan introduced this week is silent on carried interest, it appears to make the issue moot. Under the Trump plan, those investors income could prospectively be treated even better than it is now, by falling under the 15% pass-through rate rather than at the proposed 20% rate on capital gains for which it might otherwise be eligible under the old rules. Rather than producing a tax hike for those investors as he promised over the course of the campaign, Trump may be giving them an additional tax cut.

Then there is the personal income tax side of the equation. It is here, more than on the corporate side, that the marketing of the plan has a stroke of genius. During the presidential campaign Trump insisted that wealthy taxpayers would get no benefit from his tax plan, which would instead deliver massive cuts to the middle class. Mnuchin doubled down on the Trump promise shortly after the inauguration, when he stated that “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions, so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class." 

There were always two problems inherent with that promise. First, wealthy taxpayers pay most of the taxes in this country--a fact at odds with Democrat rhetoric and beliefs, but nonetheless a fact--and if one cuts income tax rates, it is very difficult not to have those at the upper end of the spectrum who pay the lion's share of income taxes derive a benefit. And so it is in this case. Contrary to Trump and Mnuchin's promises, the Trump plan delivers massive cuts in income taxes to the wealthiest taxpayers by lowering rates on ordinary income, capital gains and dividends. But then it goes farther, and eliminates the Obamacare tax on investment earnings, the Alternative Minimum Tax and the Estate Tax. It includes, quite simply, everything wealthy Americans could ever want to find under the tree on Christmas morning.

Second, as Mitt Romney famously pointed out four years ago, approximately half of Americans--47% was the number Romney pointed to at the time--pay little or no federal income tax. In the press conference introducing the Trump plan, Mnuchin suggested that in addition to reducing the current seven tax brackets to three, with tax rates of 10%, 25% and 35%, there would effectively be a new tax rate of zero for families earning less than $24,000. The misleading aspect of Mnuchin's boast is that, according to Congressional Budget Office data, a family with $24,000--which is at the upper end of the first quintile of taxpayers--now pays a net income tax rate of negative 7.2% (net of the refundable tax credits, including the Earned Income and Child Care tax credits) . Mnuchin's statement is misleading because those taxpayers whom he says will enjoy a zero tax rate under the Trump plan are already paying no federal income tax. (And, it should be noted, neither Cohn nor Mnuchin suggested that the Trump plan would eliminate the payroll tax, a flat tax that is distinct from the income tax and dedicated to funding Social Security.)

This was always the problem with the Trump tax cut rhetoric. A massive income tax cut for people who are not paying much to begin with is hard to deliver. But as Donald Trump knows better than any politician we have ever seen, the truth of what you say matters far less than the conviction with which you say it. This is where the stroke of genius resides in the plan as proposed. And Trump will sell it well: We are getting rid of all those special interest deductions for the wealthy. That I can tell you. And we are lowering the bottom rate to zero. It doesn't get much lower than zero. Right? Much of Trump's base lies well within the 47% of taxpayers that Romney held in such contempt, but they love Donald Trump and many actually believe what he tells them. If Trump's tax plan becomes law and he declares that he has delivered to them what he promised--a huge, massive, beautiful tax cut--they will believe him, whether or not they get anything out of it.

The problem with the Gallup suggestion that 57% of Americans believe that their federal income taxes are too high is that it is hard to come up with 57% of Americans who actually pay much in federal income taxes. According to CBO data, in addition to the first quintile rate of negative 7.2%,  the second and third quintile of households pay net tax rates of negative 1.2% and positive 2.6%, respectively. Those three quintiles represent 60% of American households. In sum, those 60% of households pay an aggregate net negative tax rate of -1.3%. That is to say that the cost of the refundable tax credits received by that 60% of taxpayers more than offsets their entire federal income tax liability. Including the payroll tax, which approximates 8% for that cohort of taxpayers, those 60% of taxpayers pay 13.6% of total federal taxes.

Since the Reagan Revolution, lower income taxpayers have provided the votes to deliver tax cuts for wealthy Americans. The power of tax cut rhetoric is powerful, and it endures. Trump's tax plan will garner support that is broader and deeper than his election majority, for the simple reason that there will be something of real value on the table this time. Millions of Americans who stand to gain from the tax cuts will likely throw caution--and deficits--to the wind, and clamor for their passage. Corporate America is already all-in. The Trump voters will be all in even if they get little out of it, because--facts be damned--they will be thrilled that their man is once more delivering what he promised. And those who will pay the cost of the $6 trillion when the bill finally comes due will have little to say on the matter, as most of them have not yet been born.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Trump doctrine.

Bombing Syria has had such a salutary impact on the punditocracy. The beautiful images that MSNBC host Brian Williams described, of Tomahawk missiles being launched from a destroyer in the Mediterranean, brought back the halcyon days of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe. Talking on Morning Joe on Friday morning, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered fulsome praise for Donald Trump standing up as the last bulwark of defense for international norms and values. 

Speaking on the same show, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatious summed up the widespread enthusiasm for Donald Trump's Syria attack: "It sets the table. It establishes the credibility of American power. Trump's problem, in dealing with the Chinese and everyone else is, is he big talk, he is bluster but no delivery. And by taking action quickly, and in a way that's moved with surprising speed, I think he's demonstrated this isn't just talk. 'I mean it. I'm going to enforce the positions that I take.'"

The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that when Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria, he wasn't actually enforcing a position that he had taken. Quite the contrary. Just a week earlier, his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had announced a shift in US policy toward Syria, accepting the "political reality" that the regime of Bashar Assad was likely to remain in place, in order shift the US focus to the defeat of ISIS.

Trump's suggestion that it was the televised images of the children mutilated by the attack that changed his view on Assad and impelled him to act was strikingly disingenuous. As horrific as the chemical weapons attack killing an estimated 70 Syrians was, it did not tell us anything we did not know already about Assad. The Bashar Assad whom Haley and Tillerson accepted as a political fact of life a week before the chemical attack last week had repeatedly used chemical weapons to kill upwards of 2,000 of his own people, and is the central figure in a civil war that has left a half a million Syrians dead, led 3 million Syrians to flee the country, and left 6.5 million internally displaced--out of a country with a pre-war population of 23 million.

Until this week, under the banner of his America First doctrine, Donald Trump had forsworn his role as 'president of the world' and the responsibilities of the United States as the protector of the global order. This week, he came full circle. In his remarks following the military action against the Assad regime, Trump declared that attacking Syria was in the vital, national security interest of the United States and its allies, and he embraced his responsibility to enforce United Nations edicts and international bans on the use of chemical weapons. Much to the chagrin of his most loyal supporters, his words mirrored the language used by George W. Bush and Barack Obama justifying United States military actions in the region on their watch. New military engagement in the Middle East--with the exception of destroying ISIS--was exactly what Trump had long railed against and had pledged to his supporters would never happen under his watch.

Members of the foreign policy establishment have been bending over backwards to identify the emergence of a global geo-political doctrine in Trump's action. Some see his Syria attack as a projection of strength, announcing to the world that the United States is back from the Obama years of timidity and prepared to reassume a position of muscular global leadership. For others, it was the strategic brilliance that stood out, as the attack sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jingping--with whom Trump was meeting at the time of the attack--that Trump is not a man to be trifled with--whether with respect to the South China Sea or North Korea--and that he is willing to use force and to act swiftly.

This is one more quintessentially Trump moment, where people interpret Trump's behavior through their own eyes. As a man with no real ideology, Trump has mastered the art of letting others see what they want to see in him. To economic conservatives, he is an economic conservative; to social conservatives, he a social conservative; and to white nationalists, he is a white nationalist. Now, realpolitik, great power internationalists who had despaired of having an isolationist in the White House are viewing his action through their own lens, while their historical neoconservative adversaries watched the same missile attack and are seeing glimpses of idealistic interventionism in Trump's action. Like the morning after one of his overnight tweetstorms, the world watched the missiles fly and scurried to interpret their meaning.

In the same vein, Washington Post guru Bob Woodward praised Trump in the wake of the attack for the swiftness of his "pivot" from the isolationist rhetoric that led him to accept the Assad regime last week to the robust internationalism that led him to bomb the regime this week. But if we know anything about Trump, it is that he does not pivot; what we saw in Syria was just Donald Trump being Donald Trump.

Reporting for the New York Times, Robin Lindsay and Dave Horn suggested that the Syria attack pointed to the outlines of an emerging Trump Doctrine, but in their case it was one that resonates with the Donald Trump we have come to know: "Don’t get roped in by doctrine... Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era." That assessment mirrors what Trump described during the campaign as his belief in strategic unpredictability, which, he argued, had the benefit of not letting your adversaries know what you might do next. Call it a doctrine if you must, but Trump's strategic unpredictability can also be seen simply as a justification for acting impulsively. Looked at through the lens of the Trump doctrine of strategic unpredictability, what we saw in Syria might be our first glimpse of Donald Trump with a nuclear-armed Twitter account.

In the days since the attack, it seems to have quickly shrunk in significance. The airbase hit in the missile strike is back in operations, and the Assad regime is once again targeting the town where the chemical attack occurred. If Trump's action was supposed to be a shot across the bow of the Assad regime, it is not yet apparent that the warning had great effect. Reflecting back on events over the weekend, it is apparent that the pronouncements of a coherent Trump Doctrine might have been a bit premature. The Syrian civil war continues unabated. It is hard to imagine how anyone expected otherwise from one missile strike.

While the strike was sold to Congress and the public as a one-off event, it is hard to imagine that there will not be more to come. Trump stood before the world and embraced his role as nothing less than the defender of the suffering children of Syria--"No child of God should ever suffer such horror"--and their anguish is nowhere near an end. And then there is the media coverage. It may have been fake news, but over the past few days, Donald Trump has had the best press he has seen in the short life of his presidency. Having gotten a whiff of the plaudits that come to a wartime president--in the early days at least--it is hard to imagine him letting go for a better grip.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.