Deal Makers Make Deals

President Trump is a deal maker at heart.  After all, he wrote a book called The Art of the Deal.  So is it really a surprise to anyone that President Trump has reached out to the Democrats in Congress to make deals?

trump_the_art_of_the_dealLast week Trump reached agreement with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the leaders of the Democrats in the Senate and House respectively, on an arrangement to raise the debt ceiling and provide hurricane relief funds.  Last night, Schumer and Pelosi announced that they had reached agreement with President Trump on a legislative solution to the status of the so-called DREAMers — children brought to America by illegal immigrant parents who have grown up in this country and who had been protected from deportation under Obama Administration policies.  According to the Democratic leaders, they and Trump agreed to pursue bipartisan legislation to protect the children from deportation in exchange for Democratic support of border security enhancements.  Schumer and Pelosi say the border security enhancements don’t include supporting Trump’s long-touted wall along America’s southern border; the White House says that excluding the wall was not part of the agreement.  It seems clear, however, that some kind of bargain was struck.

These recent announcements give some people the willies.  Rock-ribbed conservatives can’t stand the sight of Schumer and Pelosi, and the idea of actually sitting down and cutting a deal with them is anathema.  And lurking underneath the discomfort is a concern that, in the President’s zeal to make a deal, principles that are considered important to the conservative position might get thrown overboard.  And part of the subtext of that concern, I think, is the belief that President Trump isn’t exactly a master of the details who fully appreciates the significance of negotiating points, and as a result the President might be getting fleeced by savvy Democrats without fully appreciating it.

President Trump’s willingness to have these kinds of talks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.  Deal makers want to make deals.  In the real estate development world, deal makers always want to have some new project to promote, and part of the process is to create a feeling of momentum and movement.  The key goal is to get the deal done, and you commonly sacrifice on deal points and financing terms and other provisions to reach that goal.  Deal makers believe that nobody gets everything they want, but that ultimately the deal itself serves the greater good for everyone involved.

Of course, not every deal turns out to be a good one for all concerned, and politics isn’t quite like a big real estate development.  There are people out there who believe fervently in principles, and when those principles get casually tossed aside in the interest of cutting a deal they aren’t happy.  But polling results commonly indicate that the American people want their political leaders to get along and avoid things like government shutdowns because they can’t agree on raising the debt ceiling.  President Trump’s willingness to cut deals may test whether that polling data really means anything.  And if foreign leaders see evidence that just about any deal is possible, who knows what they might propose?

We’ve got a deal maker in the White House, folks, and deal makers make deals.

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The Ever-Upward Irresponsible Trend

Am I missing something?  Nobody seems to be paying any attention to federal spending and deficits anymore.

stacks-of-moneyThe Republicans, who used to be the preachers of deficit reduction, balanced budgets, and fiscal discipline, are much too busy trying to distance themselves from President Trump to do much of anything about anything, much less something detail-oriented and difficult, like tackling federal spending.  And the Democrats never seemed to have much appetite for actually considering whether legacy federal programs make sense in the current world, or are performing as they were intended, or are actually having a positive impact from a cost-benefit standpoint.  Expecting Congress to actually pass a budget seems to be hopelessly passe, and continuing to spend more, more, more seems to be the default approach.  And, given the kinds of deficits we’re racking up, and the experience of Puerto Rico, and Illinois, and other states that haven’t paid attention to basic economic realities, “default” seems like an apt word.

In case you’re interested, June 2017 was the first month in history where the American federal government spent more than $400 billion.  You can see the number — $428.8 billion — on page 2, in the “outlays” column, of this dry document called the monthly report of revenues and outlays, issued by the Treasury Department.   And here’s an interesting statistic, for comparison’s sake:  according to this report from the Congressional Budget Office, the amount of federal government outlays for the entire year of 1976 did not even reach $400 billion.  But ever since that time, it’s been an ever upward trend, and now we’ve reach the point where the federal government spends more in a single month than it spent in an entire year only 40 years ago.

You’d think that somewhere, someone in Congress would be up in arms about what is obviously an alarming and unsustainable trend.  You’d think someone, somewhere would be waving that dry Treasury report around and asking why the spending by the list of the government agencies set forth in small type later in the report needs to be ever increasing, and demanding that those agencies tighten their belts or justify their existence.  You’d think that someone, somewhere, would be glancing uneasily at Puerto Rico and Illinois, looking at the federal trends, and deciding that we need to do something to curb our profligate ways before we’re irretrievably on the road to economic perdition and financial ruin.

Of course, you’d be wrong on that.  It’s much easier to just react to the latest Trump Administration dust-up and let things slide.  The only worrying seems to be done by those of us out in the real world whose practical experiences with household budgets and controlling family spending makes us grind our teeth at the amazing irresponsibility of our elected representatives.

A federal government that spends more than $400 billion in a single month!  And nobody is talking about it.

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Looking To Fill The “Stolen Seat”

Last night President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court.  His formal nomination triggers the start of what will undoubtedly be a bruising confirmation process, with some Democrats already promising to do everything they can to prevent seating Gorsuch on the high court.

US-POLITICS-COURT-NOMINATIONThere are three reasons for this.  First, the Supreme Court has assumed an increasingly important role in the American political process over the last 70 years, with people at all points on the political spectrum looking for the judiciary to recognize a new right, provide a remedy, issue an injunction, or overturn a statute or executive action.  The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch, and every year, the Court accepts and decides cases that require it to tackle difficult issues — some constitutional, some statutory, some procedural — that can have broad ramifications for people, businesses, the legal system, and how government works.

Second, as the importance of the Supreme Court has increased, the process for nominating, reviewing, and approving potential Supreme Court justices has changed.  Republicans blame Democrats for the growing politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and Democrats blame Republicans, but no one doubts that we have moved into a new era of “extreme vetting.”  Nominees not only have their credentials, backgrounds, and prior opinions scrutinized for the tiniest kernel of a potential argument against nomination, but advocacy groups immediately declare sides and start their scorched-earth campaigns before the nomination speech is even completed.  Last night, only a few minutes after Gorsuch was nominated by President Trump, an anti-confirmation demonstration began on the Supreme Court steps, and opponents of the Gorsuch nomination appeared on the cable news shows, describing him in the darkest, most ominous terms imaginable.

And third, the atmosphere has become even more poisonous because the seat on the Supreme Court Gorsuch has been nominated to fill has been vacant for almost a full year, and the Republicans in the Senate refused to take any action on Merrick Garland, the jurist that President Obama nominated to fill that seat.  That’s why the New York Times, in an editorial today, calls the vacancy the “stolen seat” — reasoning that if the Senate had just acted properly last year, Garland would have been confirmed, and the balance of power on the Supreme Court would already be changed.  The Times editorial castigates the Senate Republicans for obstructionism and abuse of power in their treatment of the Garland nomination, but seems to also implicitly encourage — with a wink and a nod — Senate Democrats to respond to the Gorsuch nomination in kind.

So now we’ve got a Supreme Court nominee who has served on the federal appellate bench for 10 years, has all of the educational bona fides you would wish, and is classified by some as a “very conservative” judge.  I’m interested in seeing how the confirmation process plays out and what is brought out about Gorsuch’s background and judicial opinions — but that means the confirmation process has to actually start.  Here, too, as in other areas I’ve pointed out recently, Congress needs to do its job.  The Republicans need to shut up about the “nuclear option” that Harry Reid unwisely imposed, and the Democrats need to get over the Garland nomination inaction, and both sides need to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has nine seats that can only be filled if the Senate acts and start to address the Gorsuch nomination on its own merits.

One other thing:  as the current Supreme Court justices age, delay and inaction is not an option.  If we don’t get over this self-imposed roadblock to the proper functioning of our government, we might soon have another vacancy to fill, and another.  If the Republicans and Democrats don’t get over their political titting for tatting, we might end up with a gradually vanishing Supreme Court.

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

Weird World

Let’s face it, we live in a weird, incredibly unpredictable world.  Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, you turn around and are astonished to learn that Donald Trump is the “presumptive Republican nominee.”

120408033849-ybl-van-jones-best-advice-00002022-story-topSome months ago, we went to dinner with a large group of friends, and someone suggested that we each predict the Republican and Democratic nominees who would emerge this year.  Even though the dinner occurred during the early days of Trumpmania, I’d guess that nobody picked Trump as the eventual carrier of the GOP banner.  His behavior and comments were uniformly viewed as so inflammatory that the notion that he could somehow navigate through the primary process without spontaneously combusting seemed wildly, impossibly implausible.  And since that dinner party I’ve been regularly expecting and predicting that, with each grossly improper, know-nothing comment, Trump was bound to fall.

And yet . . . here he is.  To be sure, he’s continued to say outlandish things that would have been immediately, irreversibly fatal for every other candidate who has ever vied for the presidency, and yet . . . here he is.  The Governors and Senators, the seasoned pols, who made up the large field of initial Republican candidates have all fallen by the wayside, leaving an egomaniacal reality TV show star as one of the two major party candidates for the most powerful office in the world.  Last night Ted Cruz “suspended his campaign,” and today John Kasich threw in the towel.  Amazingly, Trump has actually triumphed over his Republican opponents while Hillary Clinton is still struggling to drive a stake into the heart of Bernie Sanders’ rebel campaign.

Last night Kish and I were watching CNN’s coverage of the Indiana primary and Trump’s by-now-familiar stream of consciousness victory speech.  CNN has not one, but two panels of pundits to cover such events, and one of them is activist Van Jones.  Most of the pundits seemed to focus on the typical things that pundits do — that the early Republican candidates made this mistake or that that allowed Trump to survive and ultimately prevail.  Not Jones.  He cautioned that the political elites may be oblivious to something brooding in the country, something big but still under the radar, a kind of broad and deep, visceral dissatisfaction with the state of things that the inside-the-Beltway types are just missing but that finds its outlet in the insurgent, unconventional candidacies of Trump and Sanders.  Perhaps he’s right.  It’s as good an explanation as any for a “presumptive GOP nominee” that leaves me slack-jawed in wonderment.

 

What Bernie’s Michigan Upset Might Mean For Ohio

In a stunning upset, Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in Michigan last night, narrowly beating Hillary Clinton and delighting those unnamed members of the Webner household who have felt the Bern and are supporting the Sanders campaign.

michigan_for_bernie_sanders_poster-r8ceb6c5a3afe4dddbb80587579ecc891_wv4_8byvr_324It was a shocking victory, because the polls prior to the Michigan primary had shown that Hillary Clinton was way ahead in Michigan, by as much as 20 percentage points, and the pundits had already chalked up the state as falling into the Clinton win column.  But the polls were wrong — obviously — and now the pundits and pollsters are wondering whether there are some fundamental errors in their polling metrics and identification of likely voters.  They are uncomfortably considering whether the fact that polls were so wrong in Michigan might mean that the polling data in similar Midwestern states, like Ohio and Illinois, might also be way off base.  The polls in those states are showing Hillary Clinton currently holds big leads heading into primaries that will be held next week.

Sanders’ upset win is richly satisfying — not because I’m a Sanders supporter or Hillary hater, but because I’m sick to death of how the news media now uses polling data and know-it-all pronouncements to drive a horse race narrative and prematurely pick the winner, rather than just reporting on what the candidates are saying and doing and letting the voters decide.  The pollsters and pundits have long since declared Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee and have talked, talked, talked about when Sanders will be forced to get out of the race, but the voters in Michigan had something different to say about it and thumbed their noses at the Beltway crowd in the process.  Good for them!

Bernie Sanders obviously touches a chord with some voters that Hillary Clinton simply cannot reach.  Does his win in Michigan mean he might pull off an upset here in Ohio?  I don’t know, but I will say that I have personally seen a lot more excitement and activity in the Sanders campaign than I have from the Clinton campaign.  In Michigan, Sanders crushed Clinton among younger voters, made significant inroads with African-American voters, and appealed to Democrats who are fed up with their economic circumstances.  Ohio isn’t quite in the same shape as Michigan, but many of the same issues are present, and there’s no reason to believe Sanders can’t do the same thing here.

I’m hoping that Bernie Sander’s Michigan shocker means the pundits will stop with their confident pronouncements about what is going to happen, in Ohio and elsewhere, based on polling data that might just be fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps, just perhaps, they will be content to actually let the voters vote now that the race moves to the Buckeye State.