The political year began with a development that I would have called virtually impossible (and, in fact, did) in October of 2016: the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, serial bankrupt, game-show host, failed casino operator, and bit player in pornographic films, as president of these United States. With Trump, Republicans captured the presidency, and that position of executive power was fortified with majorities in both houses of Congress and a commanding position in the states. Republicans might have done almost anything. What they managed was, in fact, a single tax bill that was more of a legislative fun pack for narrow Republican priorities.
Call it the year of lost opportunities.
The tax bill contains an important structural reform, implementing a “territorial” tax system that brings the United States closer into accord with the practices of other countries with advanced economies. Under a territorial tax system, corporations pay the U.S. government taxes on their earnings from business activity in the United States, and then pay to the Netherlands taxes on their Dutch activities, to the Irish taxes on their income earned in Ireland, etc. Before, the United States had claimed the right to tax the worldwide income of U.S. firms beyond their obligations to national governments abroad: e.g., if Big Bigness Inc. owes 15 percent income tax in Canada but 31 percent in the United States, it would have been obliged to pay Ottawa first and then pay the difference to Washington.
It is worth remarking that the Republican tax bill celebrated by President Trump, who purports to be a nationalist, is a great victory for the hated enemies of the Trump movement — the people they denounce as “globalists.” The move to a territorial tax system is a very big deal if you are the CEO of Apple or serve on the board of a transnational pharmaceutical corporation. Its appeal will be less immediate to the opportunistic populists who bemoan the loss of textile-mill jobs 60 years ago in towns they’ve never heard of and abominate the dreadful Chinese. Many of the firms that offshore work to countries such as India and Mexico will receive a welcome tax cut under the Republican bill. That’s all fine, but it isn’t exactly what Trump ran on, either.
Other provisions of the tax bill touched taxes only tangentially. For example, the bill repeals the “individual mandate,” the provision of the Affordable Care Act that obliges individuals to purchase insurance. One of the critical failures of the Affordable Care Act — one that distinguishes it from the more successful Swiss system upon which Obamacare is loosely modeled — was that the mandate was too weak and toothlessly enforced. That meant that the beneficiary pool was older and sicker than it would have been with a more rigorously enforced mandate (Swiss compliance is nearly 100 percent), putting upward pressure on prices and contributing to the restriction of consumers’ choices. There were two intelligent ways to go about addressing that: The first would have been repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a more market-oriented alternative, which Congress failed to do; the second would have been strengthening the mandate, which would have helped to shore up the aspects of the ACA that voters and their representatives approve of, namely the mandate that insurers cover preexisting conditions without penalty. (This turns the very idea of insurance on its head, of course, but contempt for such realities is almost universal in the American health-care debate.) Republicans are celebrating their repeal of the individual mandate, but what they have in fact accomplished is to have left a bad law in place while making it worse for the sake of political pageantry.
Tax cuts and half-assed health-care reform: pretty ordinary Republican stuff. Trump the revolutionary — he of the syntactically aborted slogan “I Alone Can Fix!” — has in his first year of action pursued a course of legislative action (to the extent that he actually has pursued it all) that would have been ridiculed as lily-livered if it had been offered up by Nelson Rockefeller. He did so while pursuing a rhetorical course that would have embarrassed Benito Mussolini. (Il Duce was, for all his crimes, literate.) The more imaginative and audacious Republicanism of the Jack Kemp school is for now dormant if not dead, as is the optimistic and patriotic spirit of the Reagan movement, which has been supplanted by the great and endless sneer of talk radio and the gaping witless maws of cable news.
There has been some good extralegislative work done by the Trump administration, largely by such Republican stalwarts as Scott Pruitt (formerly a Jeb Bush man) and Betsy DeVos (a Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio supporter). That’s to be celebrated. But it is fairly modest stuff. At the same time, Congress has exhibited a surprising degree of dysfunction, with the formal leadership of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, as well as such informal leaders as Ted Cruz, coming out as neither fish nor fowl — now joining Trump in his risible demagogic posturing, now trying to correct for his excesses. The Republican party managed to wrong-foot itself on the question of child molestation in the matter of Roy Moore, while Steve Bannon and the Breitbart element sprinted to distance themselves from their former ally Paul Nehlen, a vicious Jew-hating halfwit they had previously supported in his failed electoral campaign against Paul Ryan. Bannon had appeared with Nehlen as recently as December 11, at a rally for Roy Moore, an occasion upon which Nehlen charged that Ryan had accepted “dirty pedophilia money.” Well. Two weeks later, his editorial contributions to Breitbart have been memory-holed.
There’s Neil Gorsuch. Thank Senator McConnell for that.
Trump has long been mired in an even shallower version of Ron Paul’s foreign-policy philosophy.
The war against the Islamic State has been going well. But that, like the globalist-friendly corporate-tax reform, is a victory that represents a departure from Trumpism rather than a fulfillment of it. Trump has long been mired in an even shallower version of Ron Paul’s foreign-policy philosophy, holding that American commitments around the world are too burdensome and too expensive, sucking up precious resources that we could be using to patch up potholes in Poughkeepsie. Those who decry the open-ended American commitment to participating in every skirmish from Syria to Congo (one winces at the prospect of the clumsy-mouthed Donald Trump giving an underrehearsed speech on Niger) have a point, and the failure of George W. Bush’s democracy project points to the need for a deep and broad rethinking of American military strategy and procedures. Donald Trump is not the man to do that, and so those among his supporters who denounce “globalist neocons,” especially the Jewish ones, and their alleged commitment to endless war for profit and glory will for now have to satisfy themselves with their . . . tax cuts for globalist multinationals and the globalist plutocrats who hold interests in them. Funny kind of populism. Funny kind of nationalism.
At least we’ll have plenty of ethanol.
That 2017 has been a year of lost opportunities is an important failure for Republicans, who are likely to accomplish even less in 2018, when the prospect of congressional elections held in the shadow of Trump’s unpopularity will brighten the already visible yellow streak running down the back of Republican Washington. Perhaps things will go differently. But it may very well be the case that 2017 represents all that Republicans will really get out of the Trump phenomenon: a little bit of reform, a lot of noise, and a reputation that may never recover and may not deserve to.