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The Latest Attempt at an “Infrastructure Week” and All Its Distractions

Monday kicked off President Donald Trump’s second attempt at an “Infrastructure Week.” The first attempt was barely noticed because of all the coverage devoted to the congressional testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and the usual “tweets,” and also because it featured grandiose promises but no plan. This time around is largely drowned out by the lingering fuming about the White House’s astoundingly tone-deaf and ham-fisted handling of a couple of alleged wife-beaters who were high-ranking staffers, but at least there’s a sort of specific plan to make America’s infrastructure great again.
The plan makes the grandiose promise to spend $1.5 trillion on a wide range of projects, but with the federal government throwing only $200 billion into the pot. The rest would supposedly come from municipalities, counties, states, and the private sector, but that’s a big supposition. Trump unveiled the proposal with a rambling impromptu rift that blamed President Barack Obama for his neglect of America’s infrastructure, of course, but also dishonestly derided President George W. Bush for lying America into the expensive Iraq War, and chided the “laziness” of every administration going back to President Harry Truman, who stupidly spent all of our war spoils on the Marshall Plan, which more sane students of world history now regard as the best investment America ever made.
Most municipalities, counties and states will surely plead poverty, and because they can’t just print money they’ll mostly have a valid point. As of now the interstate highway system and other major federal infrastructure are funded with 80 percent of the money coming from Washington and the rest paid for by the states, the Trump plan proposes that the states start picking up 80 percent of the tab, so it’s hard to imagine many Republican governors going along with that, and of course all the Democrats are also going to hate it. Trump fancies himself a master salesman, and his shtick works well enough with a plurality of voters, but persuading legislators and county commissioners and city councilmen to take the heat for tax hikes and cuts to other programs so he can take all the credit for a patched pothole is a very tough pitch.
As for the private sector, they’re long accustomed to getting paid for doing all the actual work on an infrastructure project rather paying for it. Perhaps they can be induced to pay in if in the payout is substantially greater, perhaps in the proposed form of toll roads or for-profit airports and parks, perhaps in the sorts of kickbacks that the Trump real estate empire boastfully used to pay off government officials, but although we’re by no means socialists we can’t see how the general public comes out ahead in that arrangement. Here in very busy-friendly Wichita the local government is quite fond of these sorts of public-private partnerships, and while they often work out well enough both the governmental left and the free-market far right agree they often favor the interests of certain public officials and their private sector partners more than the general public, and the centrists will likely agree that the Trump administration is more likely than most to seek self-interested deals.
The plan seems likely to face bipartisan opposition, especially at the statehouse and county courthouse and city hall level, and despite the ardent support of some government-savvy and well-connected contractors it will also face opposition from big time businesses, the last of the Tea Party will Republicans will balk at adding even another $200 billion to the $2 trillion dollar deficit that’s being projected for next for year. and all the Democrats will hate it on general anti-Trump principle. As for now it’s all being widely ignored by the rest of the country.
There’s still more talk afoot ¬†about how the president expressed his heartfelt sympathy for a poor fellow whose two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend have accused him of domestic abuse and how he couldn’t get an FBI security clearance on account of the police reports and photographs that corroborated their allegation and thus had to be let go from his high-ranking position at the White House. The critics note that Trump has a longstanding habit of siding with political allies who are credibly accused of sexual misconduct, such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Steve Wynn and Mike Tyson and himself. His supporters note his stubborn insistence on due process for the accused, which is a a plausible enough argument. His critics note that he didn’t care much about due process when he was condemning political foes accused of sexual misconduct or charging Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad with complicity in the Kennedy assassination or leading “lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton or calling for the execution of the “Central Park Five” even after due process had cleared them of all charges.
So far Trump’s critics have the better of the more attention-grabbing argument, and we think the damage done to the nation’s moral infrastructure will take more than a mere $1.5 trillion to fix.

— Bud Norman

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A Not Bad, Not Great State of the Union

All in all, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was not bad. Not nearly the oratorical masterpiece that Sean Hannity and the hosts of “Fox and Friends” will surely make it out to be, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
There were no taunting nicknames or needless provocations. It was refreshingly free of “believe me” or “that I can tell you” or any of his other endlessly repeated catchphrases. He didn’t cuss. There was plenty of boasting, of course, but he also lavished praise on a few other people as well. Several of the boasts were wildly overstated or entirely inaccurate, of course, but by comparison to a typical impromptu Trump oration he was relatively restrained and truthful. Except for that annoying sniffle and strange tendency to emphasis seemingly random words, along with an amusingly botched attempt to cover up getting one of his heroes’ nickname wrong, he read the teleprompter well enough.
That’s a rather low standard to set for presidential rhetoric, but here we are. In the interests of fairness we have to note that the Democrats’ response by Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was at least as lackluster, and that nobody on the current political scene is going to make anyone forget the greatest speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
As for the policy part of the speech, there were some good ideas about reforming the legal immigration system and the same old bad idea of a southern border wall to stop illegal immigration. Something about spending $1.5 trillion on infrastructure, too, but that didn’t explain where the money would come from and was otherwise too vague to tell if it was a good or idea or a bad one. In any case, none of the arguments were so well or so badly or so memorably made that they’re likely to influence the upcoming contentious debates about all these issues. Some future “tweet” or impromptu remark will have more effect on how it all turns out.

— Bud Norman

Infrastructure Trumped By the Latest News

This is “infrastructure week” at the White House, with the public relations emphasis on President Donald Trump’s trillion dollar plans to make America’s roads and bridges and airports and all that great again, but you might have not have noticed. We’re only aware of it because a few of the pesky journalists who remain fixated on Trump’s latest “tweets” and the Russia thing with Trump and Russia mentioned “infrastructure week” in passing as an example of how Trump’s policy initiatives are being lost in the news.
Some attention was paid on Monday to Trump’s proposal to privatize air traffic control, the first of a series of plans that are expected to include a lot of privatizing, but another blast of presidential “tweets” got far more ink and air time. Trump continued to pursue his longstanding “twitter” feud with the mayor of the besieged city of London, sneering at his “pathetic excuse” of correctly noting that Trump had quoted him out of context, so that took up some space. The president’s lawyers have for the past few months been defending his travel ban in various courts by insisting that it isn’t a travel ban, the same line taken by the White House press secretary and other spokespeople, but Trump also defiantly “tweeted” that it is indeed a travel ban, and blasted that darned Justice Department he runs for saying otherwise, so that was another reason to not talk about privatizing air traffic control.
The week has thus far been eerily free of any bombshell stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia, but fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate on Thursday, and the story about Trump’s decision to not block the testimony by claiming executive privilege was another distraction. The networks will be preempting their afternoon soap operas and game shows to televise the Comey hearing, just like they used to do back in the Watergate days, and it’s going to take one heck of an infrastructure proposal to push that off the front pages.
That’s no reason not to talk about privatizing air traffic control, but none of the few stories we found about it included enough information for anyone to draw any conclusions about whether it’s a good idea or not. So far as we can tell they won’t be selling the control towers at your local airport to the highest bidder, but rather shift the power from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private but non-profit group run by a board comprised of airline and aviation and airport executives and the representatives of their employees’ unions, and shift the costs from taxpayers to airline passengers.
We rather like that last part, as we fly as infrequently as possible, but none of the stories make clear how those corporate folks will do a better job of keeping airplanes from flying into one another than the government folks have been doing. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association endorsed a nearly identical bill introduced last year by a Republican congressman, but seven other unions have protested that it won’t keep any more airplanes from running into one another, and of course what little press there’s been about it has been predictably skeptical. In any case, it’s far too dry and complicated to keep anyone from talking about the “tweets.”
It’s impossible to tell from Trump’s vaguely grandiloquent campaign rhetoric what the rest of the promised one trillion dollars or more infrastructures proposals will include, and except for the air traffic idea nothing has been spelled out during “infrastructure week,” but we expect it will include selling some government sectors to the highest bidder and handing out a whole lot of money to other private businesses. That’s not entirely a bad idea, by our old-fashioned Republican reckoning, as competitive enterprises are usually more effective than government bureaucrats that are going to get paid no matter what, but even such an old-fashioned Republican as Abraham Lincoln conceded there are certain chores that only government can do. Each of the trillion or more dollars that Trump has promised to spend will have to be separately considered accordingly, but it’s awfully dry and complicated, and what with all “tweeting” and Russia thing with Trump and Russia that’s going to be tough to cram into a 24-hour news cycle.
By our old-fashioned Republican reckoning infrastructure is best tended to at the state and county and city and neighborhood level, and federal money should be spent to infrastructure needs rather than as a part of some cockamamie planned-economy scheme, and we instinctively worry that a trillion dollars or more of anything is an invitation to graft. Something in our old-fashioned Republican souls doesn’t completely trust this Trump guy, either, and if Yellowstone National Park winds up under the Trump or Kushner brands we’ll be as angry about it as any of our newfangled Democratic friends.
There’s definitely some infrastructure that needs spending on, and at some point the private sector will wind up pouring the cement and laying the pipe and doing all the real work, and we’ll hold out hope that Trump will devise an effective deal that works down to the local level and is also graft-proof and labor-friendly enough to peel away a few Democratic votes, and won’t wind up adding another trillion or more of debt.
Even if he does, though, everyone will probably talking about his latest “tweet.”

— Bud Norman

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About That Ballyhooed Speech

President Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed address to a joint session of Congress wasn’t awful, at least by his usual standards. There was none of the “that I can tell you” and “believe me” and “OK?” or other tics that usually pepper his speeches, the characteristic boastful hyperbole was toned down a more typical political level, his sentences were parseable and occasionally almost oratorical, and he didn’t give the late night comics anything obvious to ridicule.
That was sufficient that even the media Trump has identified as enemies of the American people were offering begrudging praise, and although his most ardent supporters might have found it a bit boring and been disappointed that there it offered nothing to chant they probably liked it as well. Still, by the standard of what was needed it wasn’t a very good speech. Once people start to recover from the shock of a presidential-sounding Trump, pretty much everyone will find something in it to grouse about.
Trump shrewdly disarmed his most hysterical critics by opening with a condemnatory few words about a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, of two immigrants from India by a man who shouted “Get out of my country” as he opened fire, as well a recent uptick in anti-semitic incidents and other crimes apparently motivated by racial or ethnic animus, but it won’t stop complaints that his previous nativist rhetoric has contributed to the problems. His critics will also note that later spoke at greater length about the crimes committed by immigrants, and had a couple of widows on hand to illustrate the point, and emphasized how big the problem was by creating a new agency in the government to deal with its victims. Although we were advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws way back when Trump was calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “cruel” for his relatively modest proposals, we’re also leery of new agencies and can’t help wondering why the country can’t better serve victims of crime no matter who perpetrated it.
Trump also made clear he was steadfast against all crime no matter who perpetrates it, and he wasn’t quite so extravagant about overstating the extent of it as he has been in the recent past, but he didn’t offer any specific solutions, He spoke of supporting “the men and women of law enforcement,” which we take to mean to that his Justice Department won’t be harassing local police departments into retreat from their more aggressive tactics, as the administration President Barack Obama did, which almost certainly has to do with that undeniable if overstated recent uptick in crime driven largely a few cities where the Obama administration was particularly tough on the cops and crimes rates have indeed been soaring, but we would have liked to have seen that argument more fully developed.

The same lack of specificity permeated the rest of the speech. Trump swore his fidelity to “free trade,” but he sounded so perfunctory about it and so impassioned when he went on at much greater length about “fair trade” we would have appreciated a clearer description of what he wants the international commerce to look like. There is still an influential number of Republicans who still hew to the party’s erstwhile free market principles in Congress, and all the Democrats there who still aren’t so far left as self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were all for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals that Obama negotiated, and we expect they’re also wanting some further clarity about the matter. Anyone employed by or invested in one of America’s many export-dependent industries, such as the agricultural and aviation sectors that make up the biggest chunk of the economy around here, are also bound to be anxious for further details. He spoke of how America’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a 100 percent tariff slapped on them by some unnamed countries, which so far as we tell are India and the Maldives, which is indeed unfortunate for any aspiring Indian and Maldivian biker gangs, but we like to hear more about a trade war might affect the wheat and airplane markets. He’s for getting rid of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires people without health insurance to pay for the privilege, which is fine by us and a great relief after his campaign statements to the contrary, and he’s for interstate insurance markets, as is every sentient being on the planet, but he’s for that preexisting conditions part of Obamacare and was conspicuously vague about how he’s going to make all that work.

Speaking of the Republican party’s erstwhile free market principles, Trump also took some largely unearned credit for strong-arming and bribing some recognizable brand names into keeping some of their American workers on the job, and he promised more of the same. There were no flow charts or graphs to exactly how Trump intends to personally manage a $17.4 billion economy with all of these great deals, and we couldn’t help recalling how he’d run his casinos and airline and real estate university and various other namesake ventures, but we were reassured that at least he didn’t say “believe me, OK?” He promised to do a lot of de-regulating, which warmed our principled free market Republican hearts, and even announced a policy of only allowing one new regulation for every two repealed, which struck us as rather arbitrary but nonetheless reasonable, but all that talk about intervening in every corporate re-location suggests that the one new regulation will be more far-reaching that those few forgettable lines from section two A part IV of the This Thing or the Other Thing Act of 1936 and that bit about proper wattage of lighting in federal buildings from the Affordable This or That Act of the dying days of the Obama Administration that are tossed out.
Trump read the usual Republican boilerplate about the national debt, and rightly noted how it had nearly doubled during the Obama administration, but he also proposed enough infrastructure spending to re-build the entire country, and suggested we could do it maybe twice or even three times if we don’t get it just right, and surely we’re not the only ones left hoping for a more explicit explanation of how he plans to pull that off without the debt. He’s talking big tax cuts and promising that along with all de-regulating they’ll speed up the sluggish pace of economic growth, which we our free market sensibilities regard as good bet, but we’re not such risk-takers that we wager it will be enough to rebuild an entire country of this size a couple of times over. Trump said we’d already spent that much in fighting the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is only true if you very much want to believe Trump because that he can tell you, OK?, and he seemed to promise there’d no more such foolish spendthriftiness for at least the next four years, but he also promised to eradicate the Islamic State terror gang and radical Islamic extremism in general, so we’re still unclear how those numbers will work out.
The only other mention of foreign policy was some talk about new alliances with old enemies, which Trump likened to our post-World War II arrangements with Germany and Japan, which we took to mean that he’s going full steam ahead on selling both of them and number of other countries out to the Russian dictator that he has frequently praises. It got short mention in the speech and the immediate stories about it, but given all the allegations of Russian meddling in the election and the recent leaks about the Trump campaign’s contacts and the past officials with undeniable ties to the Russkies who have been kicked off team Trump and whatever might or might not be in those still-undisclosed tax returns, as well as all that gushing praise Trump keeps heaping on Putin, the story is likely to linger.
All those Democrats who laughed at Romney’s Cold War-era foreign policy are suddenly sounding like John Birchers, and there is still a significant number of Republicans left who hold to the party’s erstwhile stern position about the Russkies, and we expect they’re eagerly awaiting more details about the matter. The same coalition is likely to take a look at the fine print in all that infrastructure spending, too, as every last pre-Trump Republican stood firm-fast against such spendthrifty tomfoolery back when Obama was proposing it, and all those Democrats who used to think it was a great idea will hate it because it’s now Trump’s idea, and we have to admit that they’ll have an argument that the private investment part of the spending is an invitation to outright corruption, and even the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will probably oppose Trump-branded protectionism. The Democrats were mostly well-behaved during the address, but they couldn’t suppress a laugh when President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, and given that Trump retains full ownership of business interests that don’t necessarily align with the national interest we expect the late night comics will provide plenty more laughs about it in the coming months and years.
For now, though, Trump will probably enjoy a few days of relatively good press. That shtick of reading parseable sentences without provoking any “Twitter” feuds worked well enough for Trump that even the enemies of the American people are glumly admitting a certain presidential tone, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with it.

— Bud Norman

The Week that Wasn’t

This should have been a great week for the Republican presidential nominee.
The Democratic presidential nominee gave an interview with one of those Democratic-biased networks which was so awful that all the other biased Democratic networks had to concede that she lied about what the Federal Bureau of Investigation said she lied about in that lingering e-mail matter that most Americans agree should have led to her indictment on national security charges. Those same biased networks were also forced to report on the latest economic news from the current Democratic administration, and to acknowledge that it was also very bad. They were also forced to acknowledge some hard-to-sort-out controversy about a $400 million ransom allegedly paid to the Iranian government by that same current Democratic administration. Each of which reinforced a widely and reasonably held opinion that the Democratic presidential nominee is disqualifying-ly dishonest and devious, as well as the objectively provable conclusion that her party’s economic policies have produced the worst recovery from an economic recession since World War II, and a general sense that neither she nor her party should be allowed anywhere near America’s foreign policy.
These are the Republican’s quadrennial campaign themes, after all, which have proved persuasive even in less fortuitous election years over the relatively recent past, so all that was needed was for nice little Republican poll bump was for the nominee to do some serious tsk-taking about how awful the Democrats are and otherwise stay the hell out of the news. It would take quite a feat of self-sabotage to turn that into a worrisome little dip in the polls, for that matter, but this time around the Republican nominee is Donald J. Trump. The self-described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-club-and-scam-university-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show mogul has long had a knack for generating headlines, and he obligingly provided those biased Democratic networks plenty of reason to write and broadcast about something other than the Democratic nominee’s awful week.
There were the ongoing aspersions against a Muslim couple whose son had died fighting for America in the Iraq War, a hearty defense of the Fox News head honcho who was shown the door after decades of sexual harassment charges along with some off-the-cuff remarks about how strong women don’t get sexually harassed and that if they do they should up and leave like his nepotistic and well-funded daughter and of course very strong daughter would, as well as a rather bizarre by five-times draft deferred civilian that he’d always wanted to get a Purple Heart. That’s on top of an undeniably disastrous-even-by-the-conservative-media interview where he promised — believe him, write it down — that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine even though it did so two years ago and is still there, then admitting he wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way because he’d “heard people say” that those conquered Ukrainians like it that way. Throw in a speech to the richest county in America about how hard they’ve got it, his failure to endorse his party’s Speaker of the House in a primary against a long-shot challenger as well as a former Republican presidential nominee, and his blatant attempt to out-bid the Democrats on a stimulus-sort of “infrastructure spending” and other insults to the old-fashioned conservatives in his party, along with that hard-to-sort-out incident with a crying baby that all the Democratic-biased media happily ran with, and it was plenty for those biased media to talk about other than the Democrat’s awful week.
All of which reinforced the widespread and reasonably held opinion that the Republican nominee is a religiously intolerant and cluelessly sexist chickenhawk who really doesn’t understand foreign policy at all and doesn’t represent a coherent and united political philosophy and will make whatever promises he thinks a gullible public will buy and is pretty much a nutcase as well. These are the Democrats’ quadrennial political themes, and they’ve proved all too persuasive even against less fortuitous candidates over the recent past, and so far it’s good for an outside-the-margin-of-error lead of 5.1 percent in the Real Clear Politics average instead of the slight bump that a more savvy Republican could have effortlessly achieved.
Trump is already blaming it all on Democratic media bias, and most of his so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters are already parroting the claim, and there’s no denying they’ve got a strong case. Last time around the same biased Democratic media were making a big deal of the more polished and polite Republican nominee saying “binders full of women” rather than “binders full of women’s resumes” and talking about the time he put his dog in a cage atop his car and otherwise finding trivial reasons to ignore the ongoing catastrophes of the incumbent Democratic administration, and there’s no reason to think that even the most blameless Republican nominee wouldn’t have the same problem this time around. Even so, Trump is making it so very easy them that even such staunch defenders as former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Trump’s very own vice presidential nominee are finding it hard to make the quadrennial arguments.
Whatever reasonable complaints one might have with Islam in general and those Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier in general it is never a good idea to disparage a Gold Star family of any faith, and the censure of usually Republican biased veterans’ groups proves the point. Any candidate that already has absolutely abysmal approval ratings among women shouldn’t be defending rich pals who have accepted big buy-outs in exchange for resignations in the wake of sexual harassment charges nor disparaging the alleged victims as weaklings. Those remarks about Russia would never go into Ukraine and so what if it did are even more appalling from a Republican point view of than a Democratic one, and all that talk of “infrastructure spending” and that ungallant support for a Republican House Speaker who has swallowed hard to support the nominee are unlikely to unify the party behind a coherent political philosophy. Throw in that weird encounter with the crying baby, and that talk about how he always wanted to get a Purple Heart, and it takes a true believer to believe that the current Republican nominee isn’t at least a little bit of a nutcase.
We’re still somewhat sympathetic to the argument that the awful Democratic nominee’s awful week was even worse, and that everyone should thus get on board with the idea that the awful Republican nominee is going to make America great again, but we can’t help pining for what might have been. One of the more intriguing scenes from the past week came when Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, a former Congressman and Governor and one of those polite and polished “establishment” types that Trump ran against, encountered criticism from a military family. At a rally in Lima, Ohio, a woman came forward during the question-and-answer period an identified herself as the mother of a Air Force airman, which earned polite applause from the crowd, but when it became apparent that she was criticizing Trump for his feud with the Muslim soldier’s parents the crowd started booing her, which of course gave the Democratic biased media the opportunity to write headlines about a military mom being booed at a Trump rally. The more objective media showed how Pence quelled the booing by honoring her sacrifice, however, and telling the crowd that “This is what freedom looks like,” and then reasonably responding to the broader issues at hand. It’s something for the conservative media to work with, and something that the liberal media will further compromise their credibility by ignoring, and it makes one wonder what a more politically experienced and slightly less nutcase Republican nominee could have done with the past week.

— Bud Norman