What should Americans take to heart following the Senate’s multiple failures to repeal and replace Obamacare? Not that Democrats gave us a great law seven years ago. Or that Republicans in Congress oversold their ability to put it all in the dumpster. All three lessons come from the incomplete résumé that vaulted Donald Trump into the White House.
“Trump is something the nation did not know it needed,” George Will wrote recently, “a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.”
That’s a slap at the American people as much as Trump.
The “I alone can fix it” foolishness proclaimed by Trump at the Republican national convention last year reflects constitutional amnesia in the American electorate. It comes from extrapolating the so-called “leader of the free world” into the misconception that the office holds more power than Congress. America’s founders deliberately created three equal branches of government to prevent that from happening.
Will went on to suggest Trump is forcing congressional Republicans to reacquire a constitutional ethic that appropriately places institutional interests above party loyalty. During the long health care debate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, helped tipped the scales in this direction.
First, she refused the “Kodiak Kickback,” a $2 billion offer to Alaska’s treasury in exchange for her support of the Senate’s first repeal and replace bill. Trump then applied strong-arm tactics at a private meeting with several other Senate Republicans. “With all due respect, Mr. President” she reportedly told him, “I didn’t come here to represent the Republican Party. I am representing my constituents and the state of Alaska.”
The final touches were added after Trump sent threats through Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to both Alaska senators. “I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan trembled before voting as Trump wanted. But Murkowski wasn’t moved.
Trump’s attempts to buy Murkowski’s vote with money or bullying brings us to lesson two. America’s problems can’t be solved by anyone whose claim to fame is exclusively as a business executive.
The Kodiak Kickback exemplifies the corrupt politics Trump once promised he’d fix. Now that he’s in office, he prefers it to work on his behalf, the same way paid lobbyists pervert our democratic system to enrich private sector CEOs and shareholders. His threat to harm unrelated Alaskan interests added an unsavory dimension of corruption from a playbook used by business owners with little moral sensibilities.
Trump was not only accustomed to unjustly getting his way. When trouble brewed, he had personal lawyers defending him. That’s why he expected loyalty from FBI Director James Comey, then fired him for not believing “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” Likewise, he attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions for being “extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president” for recusing himself from that investigation.
There’s another Russian story that shows how a business-only résumé can compromise our democratic values. Like Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s entire executive experience comes from the private sector. America’s economic prosperity interests, he told State Department employees, must be met before we can advocate and advance our fundamental values “around freedom, human dignity (and) the way people are treated.”
Tillerson is importing the bottom line only measurement of success into America diplomacy just as he did as CEO of Exxon. Three years ago several agreements were signed with a Russian businessman under U.S. sanctions for the country’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and military intervention in the Ukraine. It was a violation for which Treasury Department just levied a $2 million fine against the oil giant.
Because it’s a very narrow intellectual pursuit, understanding business management should complement expertise in public policy, not dominate it. Which brings me to the third lesson of the Trump trifecta. Knowledge matters.
Trump has called Obamacare a disaster alongside a pledge to provide health care for everybody. He said celebrated the plan passed by the House that went in the other direction then called it mean. The contradictions clearly show he didn’t understand the law or the bills drafted to replace it. But because Murkowski did, she could confidently stand up to the man in America’s highest office.
Hopefully other Republicans will end their hostility towards the honest pursuit of intellectual knowledge. It’ll help them remember their constitutional duty to limit the power of our president.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular column to the Juneau Empire.