10 January 2017
by J.R. Thomas
The Shaw Sheet spares no effort in seeking anniversaries that you may miss. So prepare to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s arrival from Germany in Britain, 1938. Admittedly, he did not stay long, moving on with his family to the United States later that year. The USA was certainly the gainer from that second voyage, though pondering what role the Great World Strategist would have made for himself in 1960’s Britain is entertaining.
The United Kingdom’s loss, one suspects. After war service in the US army, Kissinger became an academic, specialising in international policy and strategy until he became a Republican campaign advisor, and in 1968, the newly elected President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. He has been called on for advice by almost every president since then, for those shrewd if controversial realtpolitik insights into a troubled world. Latest to consult him is President Trump, who has had several conversations with Dr Kissinger, now 94, over the last few months. Henry has also been talking to Michael Wolff with some insightfulness about the tensions in the White House, now providing promotional headlines for Fire and Fury, Mr Wolff’s anti-Trump extravaganza.
Nobody has accused Dr Kissinger of senility or insanity, unlike the current President. According to Wolff’s book, eagerly corroborated by Steve Bannon, the Donald not only is losing his mind, he also did not want the Oval Office job, colluded directly with Russians to get it, was a front man for the Clintons in getting it (or trying not to get it) on the basis he was the only Republican Hillary could win against (a strategy that seems to have gone somewhat wrong), has a private life of such deviousness and complexity that he barely had time to run his business, appointed (and fired) several White House senior staff without letting them know first, and runs naked round the White House Rose Garden at full moon. (No, we made the last one up; but only the last one).
Who knows if any of this is rooted in any sort of reality; the book will sell in millions, the serialisation rights will make Wolff rich just by themselves, and it’s going to make an amazing movie one day.
But back on Planet Earth, it’s pretty much business as usual in the Trump White House. The tax legislation is through Congress, though the federal spending bill is still stalled and must be passed or extended by 19th January. The economy continues to do well, with strong growth across the country. The threatened trade war with China shows no sign of hotting up; the two leaders continue to mutter aggressively but under all that there appears to be an urge on both sides for friendship, or business at least. North Korea also seems to be calming (that could be a very rash assertion, but we’ll make it anyway), with Mr Kim making slightly more friendly noises towards his southern neighbour, coupled of course with continuing threatening ones to the USA. Mr Trump now has Pakistan in his sights, threatening to withdraw US funding (a vital component of Islamabad’s delicate budgetary calculations) unless the government comes down much harder on harbouring terrorists. Even the current ructions in Iran are good news for the Trump Presidency which would love to see a weakening of the theocracy and long term moves towards democracy there. (Dr Kissinger and his admirers may see some Kissingeresque influences on current US strategies overseas; they are certainly a far cry from the cuddle and hope approach of the previous administration, but Richard Nixon would understand.)
Republican support among electors remains relatively steady –which is not great for Senators and Congresspersons facing re-election this fall, but at least things aren’t getting worse. The party seems to have got over the loss of the Alabama Senate by-election, blaming the history, whether true or false, of Roy Moore for the loss. That does not take away from the harsh reality that the GOP will, on current showing, lose control of the Senate and possibly of the House also; the question is how much the fortune of the Republican Party at local levels is tied to that of the President; what is for sure is that the local appeal of the candidates in the mid-terms could be absolutely key to their electoral prospects.
Which is not to say that all is serene on Pennsylvania Avenue. A number of crocodiles are creeping around with clocks ticking increasingly loudly inside them. Most presidents would be most concerned by the constant barrage of abuse and hostility though it seems, if anything, to keep this one amused, and to be passing the electorate largely by. There may come a point though at which the hostile wavelets turn into a giant tsunami, swamping the Oval Office and possibly washing Donald from office (if you believe half the conspiracy theories he will be delighted to go of course – it may even be a key part of his Grand Plan) . The enquiries of Robert Mueller into what role, if any, Russian influence played in the 2016 election continue to grind on; Mr Mueller is keeping to himself what he may have discerned, but that smoking gun may yet turn out to have real bullets in it. The Wall is not yet funded and the beginning of construction is a long way off – although a section of the proposed specification has been built in New Mexico for testing resistance to climbers, tunnelers, and demolishers. The issue of the Dreamers remains unsolved; there seems to be a general will to deal with that problem but the Administration is currently unwilling to detach a solution from funding for the Wall.
Loudest ticking of all comes from the continuing attempts to reform Obamacare. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the attempt at a universal health insurance structure (a recent poll says that 55% of Americans are against compulsory heath cover), but also some very happy winners. Dissent comes from all sorts of loser groups, though for very different reasons. To name but one, Mr Trump referred at their recent meeting to Dr Kissinger’s supposed fear of having his healthcare premiums more than double; the good doctor merely rolled his eyes, pointing out later that he is covered free as an ex-government employee by a federal scheme. What, in simplistic terms, the legislation did, was to create a system of not-quite-but-almost-universal health insurance where low income persons are subsidised towards cheap premiums but higher income persons have seen big increases in the cost of their existing cover (hence The Donald’s joke about the cost of the Kissinger cover). Even if the legislators do nothing, the insurers are still refining how they manage their risks and costs, and Mr Trump has changed the subsidy arrangements by abolishing the fines that uninsured Americans must pay. That disincentivises the very healthy and the financially stretched from paying for insurance, which of course alters the balance of risk in the insurance pools. The losers want to change things and cut costs, the winners like things as they are; certainly, the longer the current arrangements subsist, the more difficult it becomes to make significant changes. There seem to be as many possible legislative solutions as there are problems – including one which will hand the whole problem from the federal government to the individual states. The likely solution is to keep participation in effect voluntary, but with incentives to participate and with subsidies for the chronically sick. Whether that will in any way cut costs is anybody’s guess.
The message probably is; if you are going to get very sick, best do it now; don’t take the risk on how your care will get paid for later. Or be a senior government employee…