A good friend made a brilliant contribution to understand the current condition of American politics. Altering President Donald Trump’s signature campaign slogan by rearranging two letters to read “Make America GRATE Again” captures the national mood.
And “grating” is perhaps optimistic.
At the 13th hour, after the government briefly shut down, Congress voted to extend the continuing resolution for five weeks until March 23 and the debt ceiling limits until 2019, adding extra spending that will increase this year’s deficit by about $500 billion.
What actually is in the bill Congress passed and the president signed remains to be seen as no one has read the law in its entirety, another symptom of the sorry state of government. Meanwhile, the stock market returned to earth at warp speed, dropping about 3,000 points last week. And to cheer up the public, the president directed the Pentagon to schedule a military parade to celebrate who knows what.
All is not well in the White House either.
The controversy over Rob Porter, the presidential secretary, over allegations of abusing two ex-wives has tainted Chief of Staff John Kelly. Porter apparently does not have a final security clearance after a year dealing with presumably the president’s most sensitive papers. And senior staff apparently were aware of these allegations for many months. In a White House already in disarray with a turnover through firings and resignations of about 1/3, a modern record, this debacle is not helpful in instilling public confidence in the administration’s competence to cope with even the most basic matters, including security.
Grating however is not limited domestically. All is not going well in America’s wars. In Syria, Turkey and the United States are close to daggers drawn over the Kurds. Turkey views the Kurds as an existential threat. For America, the Kurds are the main battery in the fight against the Islamic State and indirectly against Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian comrades.
Baghdad may have declared victory over the Islamic State. The cost was yielding to Iran greater influence in Iraq than America, which has been fighting there for 15 years. In Afghanistan, despite the enthusiasm of some, the situation has been described as “dire” by a very senior former American diplomat highly experienced and knowledgeable on this subject who just returned from Kabul. And former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent interviews reinforce this pessimism.
What is going right?
Despite the gyrations of the stock market, the financial health of the nation is still sound. That means another meltdown such as occurred in 1929, 1987 and 2008 is very unlikely. 401(k)s may have been dealt a major hit. But that reflects the volatility of stocks that, if historical price-to-earnings ratios count, is overvalued by a significant amount. P/E’s of 13-16-to-1 were replaced by figures nearly twice as high. The iron law of economics states that what goes up, at some stage, must come down. That happened. Where stocks will level off is still the unanswerable question.
The Pentagon is finally receiving additional funds. However, the fiscal year is two-fifths over. Dumping more money into a budgetary process that remains irrational in large part due to congressional incompetence in passing the Budget Control Act and Sequestration along with a hugely restrictive regulatory regime does not mean those funds will be spent wisely or effectively. Ironically, the $700 billion budget for defense this year will not sustain the current force, let alone increase it, no matter what the White House may direct.
Russian meddling in past and future elections seems incontrovertible except for the resident of the Oval Office. Whether or not the president will declassify the Democratic rejoinder to the infamous Nunes memo on the FISA warrant concerning Carter Page, the Mueller probe continues. All of this is proving quite grating on defenders of the president believing this is a witch hunt and those who argue that it is imperative to learn exactly what happened irrespective of the consequences for the president and his future if Robert Mueller finds evidence of illegal actions.
Most Americans may not be following these and other issues. But make no mistake. To the degree polls reflect moods and opinions, most Americans are greatly worried about the future, angered over the failure of government to govern and outraged over how both parties are conducting themselves.
Sadly, my friend is correct. Trump is making “America grate again.”
Harlan Ullman served as senior adviser for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for 12 years, is senior adviser at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council and chairman of two private companies. His newest book is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.