President Trump may be simple-minded about policy, but he is sharp when it comes to survival. If Democrats aren’t careful, they are going to step into a trap in the infrastructure negotiations that the president is hoping will bolster his reelection prospects.
Democrats began talks with Trump on infrastructure to position themselves as focused on getting business done and not all investigations all the time. They consider it low-risk, because they don’t think the president can come to an agreement on a package. But the mere fact that they are at the table with Trump hands him a tactical gain: He promised an infrastructure bill during the 2016 campaign but, because of internal GOP divisions, has never put one forward. Thus, instead of leaving the blame for inaction on Trump’s shoulders, the new negotiations opened the door for a blame game: Democrats may turn Trump’s unilateral failure to produce a plan into a joint failure to produce a bill.
But even worse, Democrats may be wrong in their assumption that Trump will not ultimately agree to the $2 trillion infrastructure package that was promised in last week’s White House meeting.
While they are right to assume that the president will never (as the Democrats urged) raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for infrastructure, they should not assume that Trump won’t outrage his own budget officials by proposing a $2 trillion deficit-funded infrastructure plan. Why? Because Trump has never cared about deficits — which have soared on his watch — and his entire career has been based on the strategy of making promises with borrowed money. With the 2020 election approaching, Trump would love to pour trillions into the economy to juice the country’s gross domestic product. Trump has already broken every economic-policy norm by pounding on the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in an effort to goose short-term growth; why shouldn’t we expect him to spike spending? Trump will do anything to keep the economy humming through 2020, and a giant infrastructure stimulus would do that.
Would it be good policy? A huge investment in infrastructure is desperately needed, and virtually every Democratic candidate for president is calling for one. But in Trump’s hands, such a program would be dangerous in three respects.
First, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) should be prepared for the likelihood that very little of the money would actually get to California or New York: Trump would crassly abuse his authority to allocate funding to reward donors with contracts and Trump-friendly states with funding. He showed his colors in February when he tried to claw back high-speed-rail funds from Democratic-controlled California. More broadly, we’ve seen Trump threaten to play politics with previously sacrosanct disaster funding, dangling cuts in disaster relief in “blue” states while focusing comfort and praise on “red” states. Legislatively locking down spending allocations won’t stop him: Trump has shown a willingness to defy appropriations laws and reallocate funds at his whim, by using his emergency authority to defy Congress and announce plans to spend billions on his favorite “infrastructure” project — the wall. Congress may think it would be funding new bridges on the coasts, but, in fact, it will have given Trump the billions to spend on a border wall that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Second, Trump will likely use any infrastructure package to fracture the delicate Democratic labor-environmental coalition. He will insist on “project accelerating” provisions that vitiate critical environmental reviews. He will boost road funding and slash funding for mass transit. And he will make Democratic leaders choose between provisions backed by labor and safeguards demanded by environmentalists. As always with Trump, his real goal will be sowing chaos among his opponents.
And finally, if the giant infrastructure stimulus gets Trump reelected, then the deficit spending it causes will become a sword in the hand for second-term conservatives to cut programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Trump’s tea party allies will run the David Stockman playbook and use soaring deficits as an excuse to slash social spending. Democrats who hand Trump an unfunded infrastructure plan could end up arming his minions with an ax to chop up everything else they hold dear.
What should Democrats do? They should demand that Trump honor his own words. In October 2016, at Gettysburg, Pa., Trump promised in a “contract” with the American people that he would, if he won, “introduce . . . and fight for . . . passage within the first 100 days of my administration . . . $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next 10 years.” We are nearing day 850 of the Trump presidency. It is still his move.