27 April 2017

The hundred days of Donald


The judging of presidents by their first hundred days has become an arbitrary American tradition. Donald Trump is nothing if not arbitrary and American, so let the judgement commence.

No American president can measure up to the French original: the hundred days between Napoleon’s restoration and his Waterloo. In this light, the Napoleon of Trump Tower should be congratulated on his failure to overthrow a constitution and start an all-out war. Still, a whiff of anti-climax attends Saturday’s centennial. And judging from the flurry of policy statements that preceded it, Trump knows it.

Trump’s hundred days have been neither the apocalypse anticipated by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrats, nor the bonfire of the bureaucrats for which so many Trumpkins voted. American democracy remains in rude health, albeit more rude than healthy to European eyes. The checking and balancing goes on, the unholy waltz of Congress and business continues, and the Torquemadas of the TSA are still slovenly and incompetent.

Trump’s most significant act, the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, was tested with the usual mixture of procedural rectitude and partisan bitterness. His first legislative effort, the undoing of Obamacare, failed because the great deal maker could not make a deal with Congress.

He may still fire off late-night Tweets, as though on permanent campaign like Napoleon, but the personnel of his cabinet and staff are not revolutionary. The decline of Steve Bannon suggests that Trump is drifting towards the centre.

Trump’s response to the Obamacare rebuff – no effort to conciliate Congress, and only a vague promise to revisit healthcare reform at some point in the future – suggests that he is happy to drift. Perhaps this is the real art of the deal: the winner is the one who cares least. But the public expects better, or worse. So do the Republicans who face midterm elections in November 2018.

There has been too much tactics, and not enough strategy: too much arguing with the media, and not enough thinking about policy. The hundred days of Donald have smacked of self-indulgence. He could not resist telling us that while the US military was bombing Assad’s jets, he and President Xi were enjoying “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen”.

On Tuesday, aware that their man was being judged and found wanting, Trump’s people announced that on Wednesday he would address another big campaign promise, tax reform. The announcement was hurried: key details were still being worked out on Tuesday. The legislative battle is months ahead, but the disposition of forces is clear.

Trump proposes cutting the flat rate of business tax from 39.6 per cent to 15 per cent. He also proposes to reduce the number of brackets for personal income tax, and to lower the top rate from 39.6 per cent to 35 per cent.

But the gap between Trump’s business tax proposal and the preference of top Republicans in the House of Representatives is wide.

Republican congressmen have spoken of a 20 per cent corporate tax rate and a top tax rate of 25 per cent on “pass-through” businesses. These constitute the majority of US businesses, and are so called because their profits and deductions pass to their individual owners. Most small businesses are taxed as “pass-throughs”, but so are some large ones, including Trump’s property and branding businesses.

House Republicans favour these higher rates because of their legislative strategy. Their majority, and the Republican majority in the Senate, allow them to legislate without having to compromise by seeking the support of Democrats. But pushing bills through the Senate with a party-line vote commits the Republicans to the procedure of “reconciliation”. This requires all new bills to avoid increasing budget deficits over the next decade.

If House Republicans cannot reconcile Trump’s business tax proposals with their budget deficit projections, then Trump will face a repeat of the Obamacare fiasco. This week, Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon and the top senator on the Senate Finance Committee, warned Trump against another “debacle”. The President could “hardball” his way through the reconciliation process but, Wyden said, “the track record shows it’s not sustainable and it’s not successful” – especially when the track is leading to the midterms.

If Trump fails to compromise, then tax reform will join healthcare reform in the catalogue of Trump failures. Failure, like many other words, is not in the President’s vocabulary. And so, with tax reform next up, Trump seems to have settled on a strategy for dealing with the Hill.

The government runs out of money in the first seconds of Trump’s hundredth day: a minute past midnight on Friday night. To avert a government shutdown on this most symbolic of days, House Republicans need the votes of House Democrats. The bill to keep the lights on in Washington DC includes subsidies for insurance companies. Without these subsidies, Obamacare will collapse. Neither Republicans nor Democrats want the blame for this.

Nor does Trump. Missing from this week’s legislative bill on government funding was a budget for that other campaign promise, the building of the border wall. Trump has said he will ask for the money later this year. Meanwhile, dropping the border wall makes a deal on the budget more likely.

As Trump passes the end of his beginning, we might be seeing the beginning of a strategy. Trump needs Congress if he is to honour his campaign promises. Republicans in Congress need a successful presidency if they are to hold their seats in 2018. Not exactly Napoleonic: more like business, as usual.

Dr Dominic Green is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and teaches Politics at Boston College