VOL. 10 | NO. 2 | Saturday, January 7, 2017
By Bill Dries
If the election of Donald Trump was a mystery, there are even more questions about what will he do once he takes office Jan. 20. The clues may or may not be in the conduct of his campaign.
“Donald Trump campaigned without being tied to the traditional parameters of conservative-liberal dialogue that we’ve come to know over the past 20 or 30 years,” said Memphis attorney John Ryder, who is legal counsel to the Republican National Committee. “The hopeful part about that is that allows him to move past those divisions and enter new territory.”
What Trump does or doesn’t do deepens the mystery for experienced players who are trying to fill a political vacuum.
At a local Federalist Society forum a month from the inauguration, Ryder said Trump’s transition to governing is as much a mystery as his rise through the primaries and the general election.
“Anybody who attempts to read their crystal ball in predicting the future with regard to Donald Trump is cruising for a bruising because it sure didn’t work during the campaign,” he added. “And I’m not sure it’s going to work in the administration.”
Reading the Republican majorities in Congress is easier.
“I think they will probably repeal the Affordable Care Act, which I think will be a mistake,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis said on News Channel 3’s Live at Nine in one of a series of year-end interviews. “The Republicans have been against it forever, but they’ve never had a plan to replace it. It’s harder to build something than tear it down.”
Republicans and Democrats in the Tennessee Legislature think changes to Medicaid aren’t far behind, whatever happens to Obamacare.
State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville would like to see a switch to block grant federal funding for TennCare – the state’s version of Medicaid.
“That will give us the flexibility to do, with less strings attached we believe, what we think is the best thing to do for Tennessee,” Norris said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
“At the same time, I have some concerns there are some other aspects of the existing system that may be repealed. It’s too soon to say,” he added. “But the annual assessment that hospitals put on themselves and we draw down federal funds for that additional revenue that they generate – that may be at risk. The concern is that we get less funding although in block-grant form. It will be challenging.”
TennCare operates on a federal waiver and the waiver was just recently approved for a five-year extension, “which is a good thing,” Norris said.
State Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris of Memphis said the most realistic hope is that federal funding overall remains stable for TennCare.
“Forget the additional spending. Forget Obamacare. Forget Insure Tennessee,” he said, referring to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal for a Medicaid expansion rejected by the Legislature in 2015. “All that is probably out the window. But if we see contractions on Medicaid and Medicare, that is going to put a lot of our hospital systems in grave jeopardy.”
Harris says Obamacare has problems even a Democratic president would have to address post-Obama.
“There’s no doubt about it. Obamacare, the mandatory part … that part of Obamacare had problems,” Harris said. “The issue now is are we going to be part of the conversation going forward as there is a new administration. That’s what is really important.”
Harris sees the state’s two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, as important connections in those discussions.
At the outset Corker looks to have the best relationship with Trump and an existing rapport.
In February, before Trump had secured the GOP nomination but as some in the party were trying to stop his rise with plenty of attendant rumors about a change in convention rules, it was Corker who cautioned against moves that would overturn the popular vote results in the primaries.
“The American people obviously are very angry right now,” Corker said before speaking at the Shelby County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Gala just weeks ahead of the Tennessee presidential primaries. “It’s on both sides of the aisle. I think that the American people know that we still are failing to address the central issues to make this country flourish in the way we’d like to see it flourish and be safe.”
By the summer, there was speculation about Corker as a Trump running mate after Corker met with Trump and wound up onstage at a Trump rally in North Carolina – a battleground state.
It was Corker who ended the speculation, which was renewed after he made the short list for consideration as Secretary of State.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker will oversee confirmation hearings on Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobile CEO who is Trump’s pick for Secretary of State.
That’s not to suggest any animosity between Trump and Lamar Alexander.
Trump’s call to consider abolishing the federal Department of Education mirrors Alexander’s own call in his short-lived 1996 presidential bid. Alexander is a former secretary of education.
Alexander, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was also architect in the creation and passage last year of the Every Student Succeeds Act – or ESSA.
ESSA keeps the requirement of annual achievement tests, includes an early childhood education program and requires states to focus on turning around schools in the bottom 5 percent in terms of student achievement.
Those were all provisions President Barack Obama wanted in the bill. It also specifies that the federal Education Department cannot require states to adopt Common Core standards in order to get federal funding, and reduces other federal mandates through the education department.
In a June interview with Education Week magazine, Alexander said he was skeptical the Education Department would follow such a law without those terms.
“I guess we could abolish the Department of Education,” he said when asked about the role of the department post-ESSA. “I’m convinced that the law is the most significant devolution of power to the states in a quarter century, certainly on education.”
That was before Trump was about to formally claim the Republican nomination. It signifies that Trump isn’t filling in a blank ideological canvas.
Ryder and former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, a Democrat, agree that Trump has what Wharton described as a “developing ideology.”
“You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose,” is how Wharton puts it. “The portrait of a campaign is one thing. But actually governing is another. When reality really sets in you’ll see the ideology develop.”
The campaign “poetry” of Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the run-up to the November election was more of a diagnosis.
“The Republicans are not like Donald Trump. Nobody’s like Donald Trump,” he told those at a backyard Democratic rally between early voting and Election Day. “The man is a sociopathic narcissist who has no business being in society because he’s a menace to everybody.”
Cohen has been the local connection to the Obama White House for all eight years by virtue of his early support of Obama in the 2008 primary season when Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
And he led local efforts that carried the county for Clinton in the 2016 presidential general election even as Trump took the state and the national electoral vote count.
His post-election “prose” is more somber and less prone to diagnoses – but no less critical of Trump as president-elect.
“Probably in the next administration we are going to see the private sector have more opportunities,” Cohen said six weeks after the election at the rollout of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s minority business partnership effort. “The government’s going to be spending less and less in areas that are very important because we’re cutting taxes and putting more and more money probably into the defense department.”
In a string of post-election appearances, Cohen has been less prognosticator and more critic of Trump’s actions before taking the oath on Jan. 20.
“We are in a post-truth world,” he said on News Channel 3. “I think things will get done, but we may rue what gets done.”
On MSNBC Jan. 2, Cohen talked specifically about Russian hacking of Democratic political operatives and Trump’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is not our friend … and our president needs to get it right,” Cohen said referring to Trump. “This is not the time to get in bed with the KGB unless the KGB has something on the president. … This is not normal behavior.”
Putin was a KGB officer during the days of the Soviet Union and Cohen added, “Once KGB, always KGB.”
Somewhere in between Corker and Cohen is Haslam, who backed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the primaries and warned Tennessee’s Republican voters that Trump was a danger to “the party of Reagan and Lincoln.”
Haslam sought block-grant funding from the Obama administration in the first version of his plan to expand Medicaid coverage and it was rejected by the administration.
Haslam also made the decision that Tennessee would not set up its own exchange to offer insurance under the Affordable Care Act to the uninsured, opting instead for a federal exchange.
It’s a decision Norris said has been justified by problems the exchanges have had recently with insurers either leaving them or hiking premiums by double-digit percentages.
“It’s one of the main pillars of the overall system,” Norris said. “And so with the system in collapse, you say, ‘Thank God we didn’t go out and buy that billion-dollar bag that we would be left holding when the thing craters.’”
With that history, Haslam may be a good barometer of how much of the change expected in a Trump presidency comes from Trump and how much is the result of political forces already in place before Trump’s one-of-a-kind victory at the polls.