One of the principles that I try to follow when dealing with complex problems is something known as Occam’s razor, named for a medieval priest. Occam’s sharply focused principle is that all things being equal, the simplest explanation has the greatest chance of being right.
So today, I’d like to Occam-ize two of Donald Trump’s recent moves, moves that in many quarters were considered strange, even for him.
The first move was nominating a marginal (to be polite) Trump toady, Stephen Moore, to be a Federal Reserve Board governor. The second was having the Justice Department support a federal judge’s decision to kill the entire Affordable Care Act.
I won’t bother regurgitating the oft-repeated speculations among my journalistic colleagues and various insider types about why Trump nominated Moore and is trying to have the courts void the ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare, even though that endangers Republicans who are running for election or reelection to Congress.
Instead, let me suggest a screamingly simple explanation for both the Moore nomination and the anti-Obamacare move. It’s that Trump would much rather play offense than defense — something that’s obvious to anyone who’s been watching him from afar, as I have.
When Trump plays offense, he’s the center of attention (his favorite place), and he forces people to react to him. Even if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s put his opponents on the defensive. Forcing them to play defense means that they have less time and less energy to play offense against him.
Besides, should Trump lose, he’ll have mounted plenty of other attacks on other fronts by the time defeat rears its ugly head, and he’ll probably ignore his defeat or somehow spin it as a victory.
Sure, my he’d-rather-play-offense-than-defense explanation sounds simplistic. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Simple explanations are often the right explanations, even though they seem unsophisticated.
In the case of the Fed, nominating Moore not only lets Trump dominate the news, but it could also be causing Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell, a frequent Trump target, to reach for heartburn meds. And to wonder whether he’ll want to stay on as Fed chair until his term expires in 2022 if Trump is reelected.
Powell, whom Trump nominated for the Fed chairmanship, is the kind of independent-minded person you expect to see named to a job like that. Trump has said frequently that he now regrets having nominated him.
So now he’s nominated someone entirely different. Moore looks like a lightweight who won’t ever oppose anything that Trump will ever want. If Moore is confirmed, it will cast serious doubt on the Fed’s ability to remain independent, which it needs to be to do its job properly. But it would be a big win for Trump, whose influence over the Fed would be increased.
What does Trump lose if Moore isn’t confirmed? As best I can see, not much. To use a football analogy, Trump will be facing a second and 10 rather than a first and 10. No biggie.
The same situation holds in the move against Obamacare. If Trump gets Obamacare tossed out, he claims a victory. If not, he’s no worse off than he is now, and he can add criticism of the federal courts to his complaints about the vote against Obamacare repeal by the dying Sen. John McCain.
Trump’s move does seem to hand Democrats a potent issue against Republicans in House and Senate races in 2020. What about that? Well, those elections are more than a year and a half away. That’s a lot longer than Trump’s attention span or time horizon.
Those of you who read my work regularly may have noticed (possibly with relief) that this column is shorter than usual. The reason is Occam-demic: Simple things take fewer words to explain than complicated things do.
Postscript: Two Washington Post colleagues and I are scheduled to appear (for no fee) in April at a National Library Week event at Fed headquarters.