Monday, August 19, 2019

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Present and Future

As America slips from mid-August to late-August, the humidity creates that familiar feeling of suspended animation.

The Era of Trump is often said to be characterized by chaos, constant change, and presidential careening. 

The reality, until and unless a Martian invasion or some other paradigm-shifting event take place, is that news on this Monday morning is typical pure déjà vu all over again, as the political philosopher Yogi Berra once said. 

The fact is, in the Era of Trump, the more things stay the same, the more they stay the same.


The present: President Trump, in Sunday night comments before leaving from New Jersey, as usual, talked up the “Trump Economy,” suggesting everything is just fine.

My take on the future: If the economy gets worse, it would seem that Trump will either have to change his policies or change his rhetoric.  We know he will never change the latter, so re-election might hinge on changing the former….leading to…

The present:Trump’s top political team, on the Sunday shows, as usual, talked up the “Trump Economy,” suggesting everything is just fine.

My take on the future: Despite the personnel chaos that defines much of the president’s government, especially in national and homeland security, Trump’s top economic team has been remarkably stable.   Steven Mnuchin, Mick Mulvaney, Peter Navarro, and (more recently) Larry Kudlow have been calling the economic shots for some time.  If Trump won’t change his rhetoric, and he can’t really change his policies (he’s got no big agenda and the House wouldn’t pass one if he did…), then, like the owner of a failing sports team, the only option might be to start replacing the coaching staff.  But that doesn’t seem likely either, since Mnuchin, Mulvaney, Navarro, and Kudlow all seem to like their jobs enough to have learned how to be good courtiers in the Trump court.  Which means the one big, substantive play the White House has going now on the economy is…

The present: Once again, the push-me-pull-you trade war-slash-negotiations with China.  Tariffs might or might not go on or off, the next round of talks might or might not be scheduled for the fall, Huawei might or might not get a reprieve on doing business with the U.S.

My take on the future: There is an inherent tension between the politically popular rhetoric that Trump has long used to excite voters in his base and beyond (bashing China as an economic outlaw whose actions are destroying America) and the goal of making a deal with China, which, if it happened, would implicitly deem the Chinese trustworthy partners and would by definition involve some compromise that would take the edge off of the notion that Trump was uniquely able to negotiate the deal of the century.  Trump talks like he is playing the Chinese, but at some point before November 2020, absence some hard-to-see-now breakthrough deal, it is going to feel to a lot of voters like China has played Trump.  Which means the president is going to need a scapegoat, in the form of…

The present: Fed Chair Jerome Powell, whose Friday Jackson Hole appearance at the big annual Fed meeting is at this writing likely to provide the marquee moment of the week.  Powell remains a bigger scapegoat for Trump than does Xi Jinping.  One of the few essential reading articles online today is this Wall Street Journal piece on how Powell balances all the equities in his life, including the constant criticism from the president.

My take on the future: Yes, Powell wants to protect the Fed’s independence; yes, Trump’s trade policies make formulating Fed policy more challenging; yes it is often hard to discern the difference between a Goldilocks economy and a slowly-sputtering one.  But it seems that, despite Powell’s good-faith pledge to be his own man, Trump has successfully jawboned his Fed topper into keeping rates low and lower, powered in part by the fact that Trump has something no cloistered Fed chair has, which is…

The present: The most important words in the world of Wide World of News today are from a New York Post column deconstructing Trump’s Thursday New Hampshire rally, which quotes a rally attendee thusly:

“’You really feel he’s talking to you,’ says Nick Isgro, 38, who drove almost three hours from Waterville, Maine, with his 14-year-old son.”

“’He’s the most powerful man in the world, yet he doesn’t feel out of reach. He feels like he’s one of us.’”

My take on the future: Depending on whom the Democrats nominate to take on Trump and how well positioned that person is to beat the incumbent, the words of Nick Isgro are either (a) the best explanation of why Trump will win re-election, or (b) the best explanation of why Trump is in a bubble so blinding that he will think he’s winning up until the moment he loses.  Evidence that the answer could be (b) in the end is that the president is increasingly turning on one of his most important allies…

The present: Once upon a time, Donald Trump attacking Fox News would have definitively been a man-bites-dog story. But he does it so much now (when he doesn’t like a segment, a host, or a poll), that it has become dog-bites-man, as evidenced by the relatively restrained coverage his Sunday night disparagement of Fox gets this morning.

My take on the future: More often than not, when the president lashes out at a person or entity, there is a method to his (apparent) madness.  The current iteration of Fox News is likely to continue to disappoint the president as we move towards Election Day, and his venting is likely to be based on actual expressions of counter-productive (or, at best, useless) frustration and not some strategy.  And things will only get worse for this relationship if Trump gives in to public opinion on….

The present: The major gun safety measures under consideration, which are broadly popular and rate higher than the public’s view of the president’s handling of gun issues.  It makes perfect political sense for the president to work really hard, master the details, lead delicate negotiations, and muscle into place some legislation that can win support from Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and a healthy majority of the America people.

My take on the future: It makes perfect political sense, unless you consider that it will require the president to work really hard, master the details, lead delicate negotiations, and muscle into place some legislation that can win support from Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and a healthy majority of the America people.  Doing all that would require there to be a real fire lit under the president, an incentive to reach deep for the fierce urgency of now, which is less likely to happen when the odds on favorite to be his general election opponent remains…

The present: Joe Biden, who still leads in every national and state poll, but the signs of weakness within his own party continue to crop up, such as his questionable online fundraising, continued praise for bipartisan cooperation, and his falling numbers in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:

“Former Vice President Joe Biden is viewed positively by 34% and negatively by 38%. A survey taken in January 2018 found Mr. Biden was viewed positively by 54% and negatively by 22%.”

My take on the future: It remains easy to catalogue all the reasons why a Biden nomination seems unlikely, and yet his rivals continue to have their own recurring problem. Exhibit A: Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg still having trouble cracking the code for more African-American support in South Carolina and beyond.  Until another candidate does that, Biden is the man.

Which means, after several months of huffing and puffing: President Trump and his economic team are still talking up the economy, getting stymied by the Chinese, and talking down Jerome Powell, while the incumbent is still talking down Fox News and reveling in his MAGA-mad base and the apparent weakness of both the Democratic frontrunner and the Democratic field, both pronounced enough in Trump’s mind that he likely doesn’t really feel he needs to push for gun safety in September, because, well, that would be hard and politically risky.

You let me know if any of this changes.  And I will do the same for you.

In other news:

Politico says DC-based diplomats make Trump the favorite for re-election.

An déjà vu moment, this one sad and tragic: an all-too-familiar major attack at an Afghan wedding, in the midst of what are supposed to be final-stage peace talks.

Top sports story: Jets’ Gase blames self for Williamson’s torn ACL

Top business story:The $1 billion-hop across the pond and the other airline routes that make the most money

Top entertainment story: George R.R. Martin Says HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Ending Won’t Influence Future Novels

Big Four


Health officials warn of spike in hepatitis A cases in Vegas.

South Carolina

Sanders’ criminal justice plan aims to cut prison population.

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