I confess, as much as I am troubled by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade tirades, I do find The Donald’s campaign strategy truly interesting. He’s not, as people say, an “anti-politician.” He’s actually caricaturing politicians. And like any great caricaturist, Trump identifies his subject’s most salient features and then exaggerates them.
In Trump’s case, the feature he’s identifying is the ease with which career politicians look right into a camera and lie or embellish. Since so many politicians had come to Trump’s office seeking his money or endorsement when he was just a businessman, and told him whatever they thought he wanted to hear, he’s obviously an expert in their shtick. And so Trump has just taken the joke to the next level.
Indeed, if I were writing a book about this campaign, it would open with Trump’s Sept. 27 CBS “60 Minutes” interview. Trump touts his plan for universal health care, telling Scott Pelley, “I am going to take care of everybody.” And when Pelley asks how, Trump gives the greatest quote so far of the 2015 campaign:
“The government’s gonna pay for it. But we’re going to save so much money on the other side. But for the most part it’s going to be a private plan and people are going to be able to go out and negotiate great plans with lots of different competition with lots of competitors, with great companies – and they can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything.”
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I just love that last line: “They can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything!”
And the best part is that it was not said on “Saturday Night Live.” It was on “60 Minutes.”
Poor Jeb Bush, he just can’t go that far. He’s just a standard-issue political exaggerator. (See his economic plan.)
Trump is the caricature, the industrial version. That’s why you can’t tell the difference when he’s on “SNL” or on “60 Minutes.”
Mario Cuomo famously said: “'You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’ ” Trump says, in effect: That’s for normal hack politicians. I will campaign in fantasy and govern in prose. Why not?
Given how ludicrous some of the GOP presidential tax plans are, Trump seems to have started a you-can-have-everything arms race. Even Bernie Sanders is promising free tuition at public colleges, more Social Security benefits and free child care to be paid mostly by taxing the top 1 percent – no trade-offs necessary for the middle class.
And the new House speaker, Paul Ryan, who isn’t even running, has joined in. Ryan described Obama’s decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project as “sickening,” adding: “If the president wants to spend the rest of his time in office catering to special interests, that’s his choice to make. But it’s just wrong.”
That is truly Orwellian: At a time when the GOP has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry, Ryan accuses Obama of catering to special interests. This guy belongs in the Republican debates.
Alas, though, the next president will not be governing in fantasy – but with some cruel math.
Start with geopolitics. The size of the governance hole that would have to be filled to simultaneously destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS, defeat Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, and rebuild Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya into self-sustaining governments is staggering. And yet the cost of doing too little – endlessly bleeding refugees into our allies Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the European Union – is also astronomical. When the cost of action and the cost of inaction both feel unaffordable, you have a wicked problem.
Not only do the tax-cutting plans offered by the leading Republican candidates create eye-popping deficits, but some Democratic tax hike proposals don’t quite add up, either. As the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson reported last week, a Brookings Institution study found that even if the top income tax rate were increased to 50 percent from 39.6 percent, it would cover less than a quarter of the deficit for the 2015 fiscal year, let alone generate funds for increased investment.
If we want to invest now in more infrastructure – as we should do – and make sure we don’t overburden the next generation to pay for all the retiring baby boomers, something will have to give, or as Samuelson put it: “If middle-class Americans need or want bigger government, they will have to pay for it. Sooner or later, a tax increase is coming their way. There is no tooth fairy.”
And finally, with carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere having just reached heights not seen in millennium, if we want to “manage the unavoidable” effects of climate change and “avoid the unmanageable” ones, it will surely require a price on carbon – soon.
So enjoy the fun of this campaign while it lasts, because the next president will not be governing in poetry or prose or fantasy – but with excruciating trade-offs. The joke is on us.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.