In the disorienting wake of Donald Trump’s election, Democrats in Congress grasped for some normality. To them — being Democrats reared for decades in a lawmaking culture — this meant some reassurance that they would participate in legislation. They quickly settled on Trump’s proposal for infrastructure spending as a promising venue through which they could trade cooperation for policy leverage. Charles Schumer, the incoming Senate minority leader, sounded excited about the prospect of passing a bill he has worked for years to enact without success. “As President-elect Trump indicated last night, investing in infrastructure is an important priority of his,” announced Nancy Pelosi. “We can work together to quickly pass a robust infrastructure jobs bill.”
How and where to cooperate with Trump presents many dilemmas for the opposition, pitting the Democrats’ self-interest against the need to safeguard the welfare of the country’s political institutions. There are certainly venues where Americans alarmed by the incoming president ought to consider working with him for the sake of preserving the welfare of the country. But infrastructure is not one of those dilemmas. Supporting a Trumpian infrastructure bill would be to cooperate with the subversion of American government and an act of political self-sabotage. It is an idea so insanely bad it disturbingly suggests the party utterly fails to grasp the challenge before it, or the way out.
It would make sense that Trump’s election would enable the passage of a large infrastructure plan if he were replacing a president who opposed such a plan. This is not the case. Obama spent years pleading publicly and privately with the Republicans to support a national infrastructure bank. They blocked it on the purported grounds of affordability. To the extent they are willing to support infrastructure spending under Trump, or at least stand aside, it is a continuation of a pattern dating back to Reagan, in which Republicans toggle between wild expansionary fiscal policy under Republican presidents and brutal contractionary policy under Democratic ones.
Republicans blew up the deficit under Ronald Reagan, then fomented hysterical warnings of insolvency under Bill Clinton. When Clinton’s policies structurally balanced the budget, they unbalanced it with massive tax cuts, a military and security buildup, and a prescription drug benefit, all entirely debt-financed. When the first signs of recession appeared in early 2008, Republicans did support a Keynesian stimulus bill. As Obama entered office, the seeming mild recession that had spurred both parties to action a year before had spiraled into a bottomless crisis unlike any in memory. But at the moment the justification for Keynesian stimulus had become stronger than at any time in the previous 80 years, Republicans embraced austerity, insisting temporary deficit spending would worsen the economy. They held to that stance — with the exception of tax cuts for the rich, which they support regardless of circumstance — throughout Obama’s presidency, which is why they blocked infrastructure spending despite its appeal to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
The cycle has been repeated enough times that careful observers simply assume that the GOP will immediately flip from debt hysteria to debt mania. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters today he still “cares” about the debt, but has realized that economic growth is a priority that will help resolve it — a realization that somehow dawned in the immediate aftermath of the election after eluding him throughout Obama’s two terms. This is a major reason the stock market has taken Trump’s election with such equanimity: The government is no longer held hostage by an opposition party committed to tight fiscal policy. Steven Blitz, chief economist at Pangea Market Advisory, told The Wall Street Journal that he had previously worried the economy would tip into recession, but that new debt-financed tax cuts and spending would allay such a scenario: “Now that Republicans are in control, there’s no concern about debt and deficits,” said Steven Blitz, chief economist at Pangea Market Advisory.
Again, this reversal has no relation to actual economic conditions. The unemployment rate is now half the level it was at the outset of Obama’s presidency, when Republicans opposed fiscal stimulus. For Democrats to cooperate unconditionally with this strategy is to institutionalize a political order in which Democratic presidents must be punished with contractionary policy while Republicans are rewarded with expansionary policy. Reasonable people can disagree about what level of national debt can be sustained, but the figure is finite. The political system seems to passively accept that America’s long-term debt should be allocated toward the goal of maximizing growth exclusively during Republican administrations. Why Democrats would find this system good for their country, let alone their party, is difficult to understand.
There is additional irony in the prospect of a Republican infrastructure plan, one with even more chilling implications for democratic governance. In addition to their opposition to Democratic Keynesianism, Republicans opposed Obama’s stimulus on the purported grounds that it contained “pork” and “crony capitalism.” As Michael Grunwald details in “The New New Deal,” his history of the stimulus, Obama’s administration was seized with terror of being attacked for boondoggles. It established a rigorous vetting mechanism to ensure no dollar would be misappropriated, and obligingly eliminated any spending program that could be attacked as wasteful. Republicans gleefully savaged spending plans for such infrastructure as resodding the National Mall — as if surrounding the Washington Monument with grass was an absurd indulgence — public swimming pools, and virtually anything else. The administration’s terror of waste did not stop the news media from framing the stimulus as largely an exercise in pork, or in deploying its resources to scour the country for examples of supposed waste. As Grunwald shows, no evidence of impropriety surfaced. As a political exercise, though, the campaign to lambaste the stimulus as corrupt payoffs to insiders was a success.
What makes this history relevant is not the implication Democrats should be driven by revenge or to replicate the Republican strategy. Indeed, low levels of routine pork-barrelling ought to be considered at worst a third-tier problem. The issue is that Trump is actually proposing to invite unprecedented levels of corruption into government. Trump’s high potential for corruption involves the interplay of two different rejections of political norms. First, unlike every other presidential candidate in modern history, he has refused to disclose his tax returns, so his financial interests remain opaque. Second, he will continue to hold his interests in office rather than retreat into passive investment. Indeed, his branding business is so intricately connected to his name, which will be enhanced immeasurably through his standing as president, that he will garner enormous personal profits even if he and his family govern in a completely above-board fashion.
But that is a highly optimistic scenario given Trump’s history. He has gravitated toward business dealings with organized criminals both in the United States and abroad. His “foundation” was a cesspool of self-dealing, and he is facing trial for fraud. Business lobbyists could literally give Trump or his children stock in return for favorable treatment, and the public would have no way of knowing.
Yesterday, Trump’s close adviser and rumored cabinet official Rudy Giuliani gave an interview to Jake Tapper about the potential conflict of interest. His defense made it clear how willing the new administration is to shred any semblance of public ethics. Asked by Tapper about the presidential tradition of placing his assets in a blind trust, Giuliani replied (correctly) that a blind trust would do no good if Trump’s branding business continued, since he knows its assets, and only selling off the entire company would do. But Giuliani insisted that such a drastic step would be unfair to Trump’s offspring: “Put his children out of work, they’d have to go start a whole new business, that would set up a whole set of new problems.” The premise that Trump’s children could not find jobs that did not involve selling their father’s name, and that averting the crisis of Trump-children unemployment should take precedence over averting massive corruption of the federal government is one Republicans probably do not relish having to defend.
Giuliani’s second defense was even more audacious. “You have to have some confidence in the integrity of the president. The man is an enormously wealthy man. I don’t think there’s any real fear or suspicion that he’s seeking to enrich himself by becoming president,” he laughed. “If he wanted to enrich himself, he wouldn’t have run for president.”
In reality, the world is replete with wealthy men who attained power and used it to enrich themselves. This is the very source of concern about Trump’s attack on the norms that prevent American presidents from using their power for self-enrichment. These norms exist precisely because we don’t assume a president is immune to temptation. Giuliani’s argument is that the very fact of Trump’s wealth refutes any suspicion of his motives and frees him from any obligation to demonstrate his integrity. His premise is banana republicanism.
At minimum, Democrats could insist that any dealing with Trump be conditioned upon him selling off his family business and placing the assets in a blind trust, and attaching a law requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. They now have the opportunity to simultaneously expose the hollow joke of Trump’s populist image and to defend vital protections against the subordination of the presidency to private gain. They seem ready to choose neither.
Congressional Republicans demonstrated the partisan advantage to be gained by unified opposition. As Mitch McConnell boasted, the public would hold the president and his party alone responsible for how they believed Washington was doing, and their estimation of how Washington was doing would be colored by the degree to which the two parties were getting along. If Democrats support elements of Trump’s agenda, it will make Trump more popular and lift the popularity of his party, enabling Republicans to entrench their majorities.
Giving Trump and his party such a valuable gift, and weakening Democrats’ own chances for regaining power, is worth doing in the case of a vital humanitarian interest. But for some highways? And to give bipartisan cover to what may well have grants to contractors who will be giving kickbacks to Trump and his family? From the standpoint of Democrats like Pelosi and Schumer, the end of the Obama-era legislative boycott and a return to the old Washington, where they can sit with colleagues and hash out funding formulas and hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies, probably feels like sweet relief. They appear to be in the grips of a dangerous myopia.