Is the demise of a rushed, poorly crafted, ill-considered, wrong-headed and politically toxic health-care bill good or bad for the “administrative state”?
I only ask because White House strategist Stephen Bannon proclaimed at a conference of conservatives in February that the “deconstruction of the administrative state” is his goal.
It’s unclear so far what Bannon’s phrase “administrative state” means, or what deconstructing it would entail. Deregulation is surely a key element of it.
But Obamacare seems about as clear an exponent of the administrative state as you can get. It’s a vast and highly complex regulatory regime that administers intrusive and often restrictive rules while transferring payments and benefits from some Americans to others via federal and state governments.
In effect, Obamacare is the leading edge of what National Review writer David French called a “vast and bloated executive branch – existing through its alphabet soup of agencies such as the EPA, IRS, DOE, ATF, and the like.”
The “administrative state,” in other words, is all the structures and functions of government that conservatives dislike, an alien force that, as French said, “intrudes into virtually every aspect of American life.”
The paradox, of course, is that such intrusions also keep quite a few Trump voters, among others, healthy and alive.
In the crowded Republican primary field of 2016, Trump alone promised to protect Social Security and Medicare while delivering “terrific” health insurance to everybody. Trump explicitly said he would deal with people who can’t afford health insurance not as his libertarian-minded Republican rivals would, but more like a social democrat.
“We’re going to help them out,” he told Greta Van Susteren last April, smacking his hand into an open palm for emphasis. And by “we,” Trump made clear, he meant “government.”
Bannon is often portrayed – not infrequently by himself – as the guardian of the (white) working class that rallied to Trump’s promise of a powerful state dedicated to their interests.
The tension between that promise to Trump voters and Bannon’s call for deconstruction seems akin to Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare while somehow leaving everyone who benefits from it better off.
Either the deconstruction pledge is a vestigial tail of the pre-Trump Republican Party, or the Trumpian paternalism is a virus that the libertarian GOP host has yet to reckon with.
Bannonism, which seems like little more than Trumpism with a library card, requires its share of administrative detail. The deconstructed state still needs to find the ways and means to issue Social Security checks and transfer Medicare funds and carry out trade and tax regulations.
It seems unlikely that Trump intends to seize the functions of the federal entitlement complex and hand them over to the local bodega.
Meanwhile, he wants a large increase at the Pentagon (a hierarchical state bureaucracy) and a vast increase in immigration policing powers, including thousands of new agents for government bureaucracies such as the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Which raises the question of whether “deconstruction of the administrative state” means anything beyond deregulation.
As David Brooks wrote in The New York Times: Bannon had the opportunity to realign American politics around the concerns of the working class. Erect barriers to keep out aliens from abroad, and shift money from the rich to the working class to create economic security at home.
Instead, the Trump administration so far is just the sum of its principal’s policy ignorance and used-car salesmanship and the Republican Party’s unresolved contradictions.
The character of the health-care “repeal and replace” legislation that collapsed last week was reflective of the whole incoherent mess. For conservative purists, the bill was another march on the Road to Serfdom. For working-class voters, it was a comprehensive hosing.
Much of what the administrative state actually administers is American society’s shifting search for social equity. It supervises environmental regulations to protect people and beasts from powerful industries. It regulates the insurance industry to give millions of people access to health care.
It makes cars and roads safer, and makes it harder for unscrupulous businessmen to rip off poor college students or contractors without consequences.
The appetite to eliminate such protections is a decidedly peculiar and partisan one. The likelihood of rolling back all that without significant opposition or scandal does not seem great.
The administrative state surely won’t win all the coming battles with Republican Washington. But the resilience of Obamacare suggests it still has plenty of fight in it.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.