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On the Lull Before Christmas

According to longstanding American political tradition the final days of a lame duck Congress and the last few days before Christmas are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s newfangled conservatism such longstanding American traditions have been jettisoned. Thursday brought news that Trump’s defense secretary has resigned in apparent protest of Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone decision to withdraw a small but effective force from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump and his remaining allies in the temporary Republican House majority are threatening to force government shutdown over Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone insistence on a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, and largely as a result the stock markets had yet another dreadful day instead of the traditional “Santa Claus rally.”
The resignation of Defense Secretary and former four-star Marine general James Mattis struck us as the most worrisome development of the day. Despite the “Mad Dog” nickname that Trump seemed to love, Mattis was well regarded by both the center-left and center-right consensus that had successfully guided through the Cold War and has done about as well as can reasonably be expected with the resulting and relatively low-level wars against Islamist terrorism, and his departure leaves him pretty much without any of those wise old hands.
Flynn resigned from his post in record-setting time after being charged with felony perjury charges and making admission to administration that he’d lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and he’s currently awaiting sentencing from a judge who has openly wondered in court why he’s not being charged with treason given all the credible accusations of undisclosed shady dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments, despite the special counsel investigation into the whole “Russia thing” pleading he should get no jail time because of his cooperation, which also doesn’t look good for Trump. He was replaced by McMaster, who didn’t last much longer, reportedly because Trump was annoyed three-star general’s know-it-all attitude during the daily briefings. The post is now held by John Bolton, a President George W. Bush holdover from the late and lamented Republican establishment who’s a bit more aggressive about American internationalism that even our Reagan-esque tastes would prefer, but he’s also advised against Trump’s Syrian withdrawal and might be on the way out.
The four-star chief of staff Kelly has also been pushed aside, reportedly in part because he didn’t get along with Trump’s favorite daughter and son-in-law, and he will temporarily be replaced on a moonlighting basis by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney,  who will also be charged with deciding which agencies should be shut down in case of a partial government shutdown. Whatever advice Trump might be getting from the son-in-law in charge of everything from Middle East peace and the opioid crisis and re-inventing the federal government, and whatever  remains of the rest of his staff about domestic policy, the unpopular president has apparently committed to an unpopular partial government shutdown over Christmas to get a few billion in funding for his unpopular idea of a big beautiful wall along the entire Mexican border, and we don’t see that turning out well. In a few weeks the House of Representatives will install a significant Democratic majority with no political or ideological reason to fund Trump’s big beautiful border wall, much of the slight Republican majority in the Senate is already in revolt over Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and other foreign policy matters, political realities almost always prevail, and without any generals or wise old hands backing him up he seems in a weakened position.
The stock markets seem to agree, given their recent dour mood, and although Trump can plausibly partially blame that on the damned Federal Reserve Board chairman he did appoint the guy, and after what looks to be losing year on the exchanges, which can also be plausibly blamed on the yet-unwon trade wars Trump had declared on our erstwhile allies, but for now Trump  can no longer brag about delivering the best economy ever. No one’s currently predicting a recession, and we’re certainly hoping for one, but the best that all establishment forecasters are predicting is the same sort of slow but steady economic growth that has been the bipartisan norm over the decades. Perhaps Trump will eventually prove smarter than all those multi-starred  generals and economists and the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives and all of us old-fashioned Republicans, as well as  the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictators, but for now only the true believers who still shot up at the ongoing rallies  in those “Make America Great Again” ball caps seem to be betting on it.

— Bud Norman

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The Fun of the Free Trade Fiasco

As much as we favor free trade, and would like to see more of it with most of the advanced Asian economies, we must admit it’s been fun watching President Barack Obama’s proposed Trans Pacific Partnership go down in flames. Even on one of the rare occasions when he seems to have the right idea, the president’s tendency to insult rather than argue with opponents, his secretiveness and opacity, his long record of being untrustworthy, his lack of legislative experience and personal relationships, and the rest of his usual leadership flaws are on such conspicuous display that even the Democrats are grousing about it.
This time around it’s the Democrats who are the targets of the president’s insults, so they’re mostly grousing about that. Longtime Democratic operative Brent Budowsky writes in The Observer that he has “never seen any president of either party insult so many members of his own party’s base and members of the House and Senate as Mr. Obama has in his weeks of tirades against liberals on trade,” and adds that “Mr. Obama’s tirades on trade have included accusations that these liberal Democrats are ignorant about trade policy, insincere when offering their opinions, motivated by politics and not the national interest, and backward looking toward the past.” We can’t recall Budowsky objecting when the president was saying Republicans want dirty air and dirty water, and telling them to “sit in the back,” or making countless similar accusations and slurs, but we’re pleased that he has belatedly come to the conclusion that  such invective is not presidential.
Nor is it very persuasive, judging by the president’s apparent inability to insult members of either party into line over the past four years or so, and even in the case of the Democrats it’s not at all accurate. Loathe as we are to defend Democrats, we’ll concede that most of the ones in the House and Senate have some familiarity with the arguments about free trade, even if they’ve reached what we consider the wrong conclusions, and we don’t doubt they’re all too sincere about the wrong things they say, and to whatever extent they have political motivations for opposing Obama we can only assume it is because they’ve wrongly concluded that a majority of their constituents and unionized donors will not benefit from free trade, and we actually would prefer that Democrats occasionally look backward to the past to see what has and hasn’t worked. Such well-intentioned stupidity should be met with reasoned and respectful argument rather than gratuitous ad hominem insults, but well-intentioned Republicans with better ideas have already learned that this is not the president’s style.
Irksome as the chore might be, we must also say in the Democrats’ defense that they’re right to complain about the president’s unwillingness to publicly divulge any of the details of the deal that he’s asking for fast-track approval to negotiate. The Democrats were willing to vote for Obamacare in order to find out what’s in it, a decision that many current and especially former members of Congress have come to regret, but this is about free trade rather than expensively and inefficiently bureaucratized health care so they’re not keen about the general idea in the first place, and thus we can hardly blame them for wanting a look at the fine print. We’re disappointed that even the most zealously pro-free trade Republicans aren’t just as skeptical, given the administration’s negotiations with Iran, and the very real possibility that Obama is motivated by western colonial guilt and has some sort of lopsided reparations deal in mind, and the noteworthy development that even Democrats no longer trust the guy, and so we find ourselves with most strange bedfellows on this issue.
A smoother presidential operator, armed with the unaccountable support of most of the opposition party, could probably prevail by taking a solid case to the American and pulling some parliamentary tricks and calling in some hard-earned favors from reluctant congressional allies, but both parties and even the press have by now figured out that’s not the president’s style. The president’s preferred style of insults and secrecy and demands that he be trusted invariably hardens the opposition, whether Republican or Democratic, and it seems likely to doom any chance of a good free trade agreement with most of the advanced economies of Asia, which would be great boon to the American economy, but we do admit it’s been great fun watching it nonetheless.
There’s always the possibility that the deal might be be a bad one, after all, so the missed opportunity of a good one is well worth the spectacle of the Democratic infighting. We note that the aforementioned Budowsky is especially insulted by the president’s especially pointed insults to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “the most nationally respected liberal leader in American politics,” and that the apparently still-existing National Organization for Women is grousing that the president’s criticisms are due to “sexism,” and that a smart fellow over at the right-wing Federalist has looked at the Democrats and concluded that “This Is Elizabeth Warren’s Party Now,” so it is comforting to contemplate that Obama remains anathema to the right and is no longer the most nationally respected figure of his party on the left and is therefor the lamest of ducks. It is not comforting to think that the Democratic party has lurched even further to the left during the Obama administration, but the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership will leave Obama and all the Democrats without any significant legislative achievement on the economy since Dodd-Frank and the Stimulus Package and Obamacare, none of which are well-remembered, and those Iran negotiations and that Israeli-Palestine “peace process” and the “re-set” with Russia aren’t likely to yield anything worth bragging about on the foreign policy front, so one can only hope that the next administration will be more likely to come up with the best deal.
In the meantime we’ll cope with the sluggish economy, and hope for the best, and enjoy the spectacle of Democrats enduring those presidential insults.

— Bud Norman