I gotta say, it was very clever of Nancy Pelosi to steal President Donald Trump’s strawberries, pushing him over the edge into self-evident lunacy.
As everyone knows, Trump stormed out of a meeting on infrastructure, apparently out of uncontrollable rage over Pelosi’s remarks pointing out that the administration’s stonewalling on all fronts, including raw defiance of the law requiring that it provide the president’s tax returns, obviously amount to a cover-up of something (and maybe multiple things). And Democrats should be grateful.
And I don’t just mean that they should be grateful to see Trump displaying his unfitness for office, which has long been clear to close observers, in such a dramatically unhinged way that only cultists can fail to see it. He’s also helped them with a political dilemma.
You see, a major infrastructure push is a very good idea, one that Democrats would find it hard to oppose in good conscience. Yet it would also be politically good for Trump, helping the economy, giving the public a sense of progress, and also making him seem more like a normal president. And Democrats would have had a hard time avoiding making him this gift.
True, Republicans seem able to get away with blatant economic sabotage when a Democrat is in the White House. But Democrats, in part because they don’t have Fox News to insist that black is white and up is down, are much less able to pull this off. Luckily, Trump has solved their problem.
First things first: Why is an infrastructure push such a good idea? Partly because we have been underinvesting for years. The state of our roads, rail lines, water systems and so on speaks for itself. Beyond that, private investment demand remains weak, leading to low government borrowing costs; investors are effectively begging the government to take some of their money and do something useful with it.
On top of these considerations, infrastructure spending is especially desirable in a depressed economy, when it puts idle resources to work in a way that promotes long-run growth. But, you may argue, the U.S. economy isn’t depressed right now. Indeed it isn’t; but it’s more fragile than many realize. When the next recession comes — and there is always a next recession — the conventional response, cutting interest rates, will almost surely be inadequate. On average, when recession strikes, the Federal Reserve cuts rates by 5 percentage points. Currently, however, rates are only half that high, so the Fed doesn’t have enough room to cut.
And when recession does strike, it will be too late to get a major infrastructure program going. Better to have it already underway.
So a big infrastructure push makes a lot of sense; it would also be good politics for Trump. Yet two-and-a-half years after Trump took office, and after a series of “infrastructure weeks” that seem to come almost as often as the president’s golfing trips, nothing has happened. Why not?
One answer is that Republicans in Congress have no interest in infrastructure spending. They see any form of public expenditure, no matter how justified in terms of narrow economics, as problematic because it may seem to legitimize a larger role for government in general.
Another answer is that until now Trump officials have been completely unwilling to consider a traditional, clean infrastructure program — you know, just build stuff. Instead, they have proposed complex public-private partnerships that would in effect subsidize the privatization of public assets. It has been easy for Democrats to reject such ideas as not really being about infrastructure at all.
After the 2018 midterms, however, it began to look as if Trump, wanting a policy win, might finally be willing to talk about a genuine infrastructure plan. And this had the potential of becoming a trap for Democrats, who would have trouble denying him that policy win.
But it was not to be. Let’s not try to pretend that there was any clever political strategy in Trump’s walkout; it was just his immaturity and insecurity, but even more obvious than usual. And the attempt to portray Pelosi as out of control is so ludicrous that only totally deluded people — i.e., around a third of the country — could possibly believe it.
So if I were Pelosi and Schumer, I would be quietly expressing thanks to Trump for throwing a tantrum, and extricating them from a potential political trap.
Paul Krugman is a New York Times opinion columnist.