Ever since Election Day, the $6.4 trillion question in Washington has been what sort of plan Donald Trump might have or develop for dealing with a broad array of national challenges. The emerging reality is that with the exception of a few priorities involving trade and immigration, and a few quick payoffs to his party’s “base” (e.g., reinstitution of the Mexico City Rules banning support for international family-planning programs, a treat for right-to-lifers, to be followed next week by a similarly targeted Supreme Court nomination), there may not be any plan. Indeed, the activism conveyed by Trump’s initial executive orders is undermined by the self-imposed “Day One” deadlines he missed, including the big-dog-that-did-not-bark action to revoke Obama deportation deferrals.
Two newspaper-of-record accounts of White House disarray, power struggles, and presidential preoccupation with non-substantive matters have come out already this week. They compound earlier reports of limited staffing and sparse policy discussions characterizing the incoming Executive branch leadership. To those discouraging signs we should add a winning presidential campaign that was famously light on policy details, and the attitude of hostility toward the usual Beltway sources of policy advice that was reflected in the President’s inaugural address.
Worse yet, Donald Trump’s erratic habits of thinking and communicating — including his notorious tendency to impulsively share his wishes on matters high and low by Twitter — are built-in obstacles to any kind of real planning.
Not that long ago, conservative activists and corporate lobbies had ample reason to hope that Trump’s apparent lack of interest in and manifest ignorance about most details of governing would enable them to foist upon him their own very detailed and comprehensive plans for reshaping America, particularly in domestic policy. Republicans and Democrats alike wondered if Trump would be the president Über-lobbyist Grover Norquist dreamed of back in 2012: someone with “enough working digits” to sign the Paul Ryan budget (which has gone through several new iterations since 2012) into law. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat described this possibility as one in which “Trump decides that governing isn’t worth it and just lets Paul Ryan run the country.”
That’s not how it’s looking right now: Trump has already thrown enough monkey wrenches into congressional GOP plans — notably plans to repeal and replace Obamacare, and also plans to cut taxes — to make it clear nobody can plan much of anything without his concurrence. And that’s a real problem given the narrow margins of control Republicans have in the Senate, and the intricate mechanisms and precision timing required for avoiding Democratic filibusters by use of the congressional budget process.
This problem is especially acute for Trump cabinet appointees who are closely associated with congressional Republican plans, but who have no way of knowing for sure what the Boss is going to decide. And thus in two rounds of confirmation hearings Representative Tom Price, Trump’s choice to run the huge federal agency, HHS, that must formulate and implement plans for health-care proposals, has been forced again and again to admit he cannot tell the Senate what the administration will propose to do — even though Price himself has a record a mile long of support for hard-core conservative fiscal and health-care policies. An exchange in the Finance Committee hearing today was especially telling: Pressed by Senator Sherrod Brown to say if Trump was telling the truth about his supposed close work with Price to put together an Obamacare replacement plan, Price responded laconically: “It is true the president said that.”
OMB director–designate Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus member who has supported all sorts of radical “reforms” of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, was reduced at his own confirmation hearing today to suggesting he’ll “tell the president the truth” about his belief these programs as constituted are unaffordable. But he could not and cannot tell senators what the administration will actually do, even though Congress has already passed a budget resolution and is poised for action on Obamacare and other priorities.
It is natural to suspect pols like Price and Mulvaney are just stonewalling to keep their plans secret. But the more we learn about the White House being a rolling ball of madness, the more it becomes apparent there may not be any plans. For the moment, at least, America is flying blind, and the pilot is worried about crowd estimates.
Trump will join congressional Republicans in Philadelphia today for their annual retreat, being billed far and wide as a planning sessions for what GOP flacks are now calling a “200-day plan” (a prudent replacement for earlier talk of what they would accomplish in the first 100 days). Perhaps the oracle will speak, and all the mysteries surrounding the party agenda will be dispelled. More likely, the solons will still need to consult Twitter hourly to figure out their maximum leader’s wishes.