White House

How Trump Doomed His Own Infrastructure Plan

His trillion dollar dream lacked support within the White House and among Republicans.

Builder in chief.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Remember the Trump infrastructure plan? It was rolled out, after many delays, only last Monday. But it appears so far to have few champions on Capitol Hill, and may well be dead already; the president himself spent the last few days tweeting up a storm but hasn't mentioned infrastructure in his feed since last Tuesday. Ezra Klein asks the question:

I think we can point to several reasons.

First, Trump's position within his own administration -- and even within his own White House -- is extraordinarily weak. This is a president whose identity is inextricably tied to building big things, whose campaign repeatedly emphasized his desire to rebuild America rather than investing in the Middle East or exploring space. But his complete lack of government experience and failure to bring in those who did led to many mistakes straight out of the inauguration gate, including on the hiring side.

A president focused on infrastructure should probably stack his administration with policy experts capable of translating his grand vision into a governing program that gets approved and funded by Congress. Instead, he mostly brought in conservative Republicans who aren't exactly known for putting together large infrastructure plans. So I'm not surprised they have produced something that my View colleague Barry Ritholtz called a "deeply inadequate" and "fanciful" plan that would "give private investors a gift at the expense of the taxpaying public." 

Trump also failed to appreciate the most basic thing about his plan: His appetite for $1 trillion of new spending was far larger than that of his congressional allies. 

It's a big misread of Republican attitudes to assume they will spend more on domestic programs because "it's not like this administration cares about deficits." Most Republicans since about 1978 simply haven't thought about spending (or taxes) in terms of budgets or deficits. They oppose spending on many government programs because they're against spending on those programs, not because it costs too much or would require funding through taxation. Yes, some Republicans in some contexts have used federal budget deficits as an explanation for their choices, but it doesn't take much to realize that it's just convenient rhetoric. After all, the deficit frenzy that Republicans seemed to be in the grips of during Barack Obama's presidency never convinced them to support raising taxes or cutting spending on programs they liked. It just meant that they expressed their opposition to programs they didn't like in terms that sounded responsible, rather than punitive.

As for the increases in non-defense discretionary spending in the recent budget deal, Republicans had little choice. It was the price they needed to pay to get the Democratic votes they needed. 

Trump didn't propose the infrastructure plan he long promised because he didn't have the support within his own White House or his own party. He is, in fact, surrounded by Republicans who oppose $1 trillion of new government spending on roads and bridges, and they easily manipulated him away from it. A president who doesn't do his homework and gets a large share of his information from Fox News may not even realize that the plan he backed isn't really what he wants. 

It's not just infrastructure. At just about every juncture where Trump defies conservative Republican orthodoxy, he's wound up ignoring his own policy impulses, whether it's in health care, or trade, or perhaps even taxes. I suspect the same thing will happen with Trump's apparent impulse this week to do something on guns. That's not to say Trump is completely irrelevant; even a very weak president has some influence. Just not all that much. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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