President Donald Trump has rolled out several new proposals in recent days that appear to offer more sizzle than substance — and critics are accusing him of a say-anything approach to the campaign homestretch.
In recent days, Trump announcements on tax cuts, drug pricing and a caravan of Central Americans heading toward the southern border have all shown more promise as political talking points than as easily enacted policies. Each of them has folded neatly into Trump’s closing midterm argument, with little prospect of becoming law.
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On Thursday, Trump unveiled a dramatic new plan to substantially reduce prescription drug prices by allowing Medicare to directly negotiate with drug manufacturers. “This is a revolutionary change,” Trump said in an afternoon speech at the Department of Health and Human Services. The move, which came as many Democratic candidates are blaming Republicans for doing nothing to control drug costs, drew criticism that it is much less dramatic than advertised and will be difficult to make into law.
“It’s hard to take the Trump administration and Republicans seriously about reducing health care costs for seniors two weeks before the election,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Also Thursday, Trump was reported to be considering an executive order to block thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from entering the U.S. Trump has fixated on immigration and used a caravan of Central American migrants approaching the U.S. border to blast Democrats for an “illegal immigration onslaught.” But Democrats insist that Trump’s response to the caravan has little to do with the larger complexities of immigration policy, and may not withstand a legal challenge anyway. Trump had already announced this month that he was dispatching U.S. troops to the Mexican border, a move whose impact is likely to be far more modest than his rhetoric suggested.
And on Oct. 22, Trump surprised even his own aides with the promise of a 10 percent middle-class tax cut “in the next week or week and a half.” Trump officials said the White House had crafted no such plan in advance
Trump would hardly be the first president to make election-season promises that are hard to keep. But Democrats and even some Republicans say the gap between his declarations and the reality of his proposals is particularly wide.
Republican candidates are largely supportive of the president’s strategy, despite clear uncertainties surrounding the proposals he is floating.
“He’s making the case to the American people that he’s on the ticket and these issues are a part of that. In a way, he’s saying, ‘If you like what we’re doing, then these are some of the items that we’ll do after November,’” said one Republican operative in West Virginia, where lowering prescription drug prices has been a key issue for incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in his race against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Still, some Republicans conceded the central role of campaign politics in Trump’s recent policy rollouts.
“All three of these are issues that are core to the president’s belief system and to his base,” said a former White House official. “It’s not lost on anyone that there is a political overtone.”
“[Trump] has a clear appreciation that by simply raising issues at the right time, he puts an issue back in the dialogue and in the conscience of voters,” the official added.
With an eye toward the elections, Trump is using feel-good proposals to remind voters who are sympathetic to his administration of what more he can accomplish if they keep Republicans in control of the legislative branch.
White House political director Bill Stepien said Trump is simply not “slowing down” in his pursuit of an “aggressive policy agenda.”
“The President’s policies are creating record unemployment, higher wages and safer communities,” Stepien said in a statement to POLITICO. “The results are evident: Good policy is good politics.”
Democrats have hammered each of Trump’s proposals. They noted that even some Republicans suspect he conjured a new tax-cut plan from out of thin air.
Democrats also pounced on the drug announcement, saying it was made strictly for political expediency.
“On the eve of the midterm elections, the president is proposing a small step on drug price relief when a giant leap is urgently needed,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “It falls far short of the significant and urgent relief from price gouging President Trump promised during his campaign when he railed against drug companies for ‘getting away with murder.’”
But while Trump’s latest policy proposals serve to bolster his stump speech, they risk undercutting his midterm slogan of “promises made, promises kept,” a message the president intends to recycle in his 2020 reelection contest.
Responding to Trump’s pledge to further slash taxes for the middle class, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said Friday the proposal would be advanced “in the new session of Congress if Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate,” all but confirming the plan would not be taken up in the lame-duck session, nor within the timeline outlined by Trump.
The president is also expected to encounter obstacles if he proceeds to impose blanket restrictions on asylum-seeking migrants. Leon Fresco, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation under President Barack Obama, said “there’s a 100 percent chance” the plan would draw instant legal challenges.
Allies of the White House see Trump’s latest policy prescriptions as both reactive and strategic.
“You wouldn’t have to take executive action on asylum claims if 7,000 migrants weren’t approaching the border seeking asylum,” said one Republican strategist, who added that “tax cuts 2.0” — a phrase Trump has used in calls for greater middle-class tax relief — is already playing well to certain sections of the electorate” regardless of whether a detailed plan materializes.
“If you’re looking at it holistically, the policy proposals, on top of the tweets and the nightly rallies — it’s a full-on assault on the news cycle,” this person said.