Be Careful What You Wish For, Washington

May 04, 2017

Everyone in Washington seems to be getting what he wants.

Start with President Trump: On his 100th day in office, he brought a huge crowd in Harrisburg, Pa., to its feet by attacking CNN and MSNBC for “fake news” and charging that “the totally failing New York Times ” was run by “incompetent, dishonest people.”

That same night, members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, in gowns and tuxedos, applauded at their annual dinner as the organization’s president rebuked Mr. Trump. “We are not ‘fake news,’ ” Jeff Mason of Reuters proclaimed. “We are not failing news organizations.”

Then there’s the Freedom Caucus, which negotiated a deal on the GOP bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The compromise, struck with one of the three chairmen of the Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans, allows states to opt out of some ObamaCare provisions if that lowers premiums, increases enrollment, stabilizes the insurance market or broadens consumers’ choice of plans.

Then, when Congress considered the continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year, Democrats blocked money for Mr. Trump’s border wall and denied half his defense-spending increase. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer crowed this was “a big win for Democrats” and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hailed the success in “securing key victories for Democratic priorities.”

Still, the lesson from all this is to be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

How wise was it for Mr. Trump to open his Pennsylvania speech by assaulting the media? Axios reported that West Wing officials “conceived of a split-screen effect” for the event, with “Trump in full-blown nationalist populist mode, connecting viscerally with ‘forgotten’ Rust Belt Americans,” while the other side of the picture showed elite Washington reporters dining in elegance.

But spending his first 11 minutes attacking the press prevented Mr. Trump from focusing on what he’s doing to create jobs and fatten paychecks. Which do Mr. Trump’s “forgotten Americans” care about more—his attacks on the press, or their own prosperity? Trashing the Times may keep his core supporters energized, but it does almost nothing to expand his appeal.

White House journalists reveled in their night as defenders of the First Amendment, but public trust in the media is at the lowest level in Gallup polling history. Saturday’s garden brunches, preprandial cocktails, banquet and after-parties won’t help restore that lost confidence.

In finding a face-saving way to get behind the GOP health-care measure, the members of the Freedom Caucus figured out how to shift blame if the bill stalls again in the House, but they also showed their hypocrisy. Every objection they had to the original bill—that it protects those with pre-existing conditions, that premiums on the exchanges will keep rising for two years, that it represents a tax to charge more when people don’t keep themselves insured and then show up sick and demand coverage—is still in the draft.

For their part, Democrats might have shown their hostility to securing the borders and strengthening the military, but is that wise? And since President Obama was unable to win congressional approval for a full year’s budget last fall, Mr. Trump is that rare new chief executive who can put his imprint on the budget three months into his term, spending more on his priorities and less on Democratic concerns.


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In the process, Mr. Trump killed Mr. Obama’s demand that domestic spending be increased $1 for each new $1 in military spending. The deal boosts spending on homeland security and defense by 3.5% each, compared with 0.6% for labor, human services and education and 0.4% for interior and environment.

Rather than risk a government shutdown over the last five months of this fiscal year, Mr. Trump wisely kept his powder dry for this fall’s budget battle over next year’s spending. Democrats will find it difficult then to stall individual appropriations bills, and Republicans will have greater control over the outcome.

All this shows is that Washington, while not completely broken, is more dysfunctional than normal. Nobody—the president, Congress, either political party—is hitting on all cylinders. Quite the opposite. Governing rarely looks focused, disciplined and efficient, but it almost never looks this unfocused, undisciplined and inefficient. Americans are thirsting for signs of statesmanship, glimmers of leadership, evidence of proficiency. These days, even Washington’s best weeks aren’t that good.

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