This should have been one of the best weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency — a week when the shadow of impeachment lifted, when his fiercest critics were dramatically wrong-footed, when the NO COLLUSION! tweets came with a certified-by-Robert-Mueller stamp.
But the rule of the Trump administration is that even political victories must be followed by egregious acts of self-sabotage. And so it was that the White House took the opportunity afforded by the Mueller investigation’s wrap-up to back a lawsuit against Obamacare that even the health care law’s conservative critics believe is frivolous, reviving a debate that tanked Trump’s approval rating during 2017 and that no Republican of consequence wants to reopen today.
Then just to add an extra self-inflicted wound, the administration also endorsed defunding the Special Olympics — a position that lasted all of 48 hours before Trump reversed it, blaming “my people” rather than himself.
What unites both of these blunders, apart from simple political stupidity, is that neither has much to do with actual policymaking. There is little chance that John Roberts, having declined to do away with Obamacare when the law faced a reasonable constitutional challenge, will rule in favor of a more implausible attack. There is zero chance that the Special Olympics will be defunded; the budget that imagined doing so was a symbolic statement that gets ignored by Congress every year.
So why revive the Obamacare debate? Why set yourself up for “Trump Defunds Special Olympics” headlines? The answer is that there are effectively two Trump presidencies. One offers something like what the president promised on the campaign trail — a break with Paul Ryan’s approach to entitlement reform, a more moderate tack on health care, an indifference to Obama-era conservative orthodoxies on fiscal and monetary policy.
The other offers a continuation of the Tea Party’s insistence on spending cuts and Obamacare repeal, and appropriately its present leader is a former Tea Party congressman — Mick Mulvaney, whose zeal is apparently the main reason that the Obamacare lawsuit now has administration support.
The first presidency is mostly real; the second presidency has been mostly imaginary ever since the failure of Obamacare repeal left Ryanism neutered. Trump hasn’t done some of the biggest things he promised. But he has ended austerity budgeting, ignored entitlement reform, reformed Obamacare around the edges while leaving its coverage guarantee intact, embraced protectionism and jawboned the Federal Reserve to be more inflationary.
At the same time, though, he has relied on personnel who are associated with 2010-era Republican orthodoxy, rather than elevating the kind of conservatives who have actively theorized for a more populist right. Trump’s choice of Steve Moore to the Federal Reserve is a recent case study: Instead of elevating a principled inflation dove (National Review editor and Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru would have been my outside-the-box choice), Trump picked a hack who was obsessed with imaginary inflation under Obama, and only flipped to back a looser monetary policy because, well, it was the Trumpy thing to do.
But at least with Moore, Trump is getting someone whose official views now line up with his administration’s political interests. With Mulvaney he has something stranger: A subordinate who plays let’s-pretend-to-be-the-Tea-Party whenever he gets the chance, limning an essentially fictional version of the Trump presidency in budget documents and pushing the president to publicly back forays like the Obamacare lawsuit that have little chance of changing anything.
You could describe the cut-the-Special-Olympics budgets and anti-Obamacare efforts as just classic Republican hypocrisy, the tribute that big-spending vice plays to small-government virtue. But Trump campaigned in 2016 as the guy who would get rid of this charade, who would actually identify as a free-spending populist rather than a movement conservative, who would enable the GOP to be a “worker’s party” in its self-conception rather than just in its compromises with political reality.
Instead, thanks to his “people” and his own rhetorical shifts, he’s ended up in a weirder position. The Trump record would justify, within limits, campaigning in 2020 the way he did in 2016, claiming to have governed as a populist, taking credit for reforming Obamacare rather than eliminating it, taking credit for Congress’ guns-and-butter budgets and all the popular spending they contain.
But right now Trump is letting the mostly imaginary version of his presidency, the Mulvaney version, define his priorities and public rhetoric. Which makes him look like a guy who didn’t keep his promises, who promised to be a different kind of Republican and then kept trying to defund the Special Olympians and throw people off their health care coverage.
That’s the most unpopular version of Trumpism, which is saying something. And his chances in 2020 will turn, in part, on whether he realizes it. His real economic record, however haphazard and under-theorized, could still win him re-election. The Mulvaney fantasia guarantees defeat.
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Russ Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times