Fun house optics and the fall of Tom Price
By Tom Baxter
President Trump put the matter very precisely last Friday. “I certainly don’t like the optics,” he said, a short time before Tom Price fired himself.
“As I said, we renegotiate deals. We’re renegotiating trade deals. We’re renegotiating — as an example, the F-35 fighter plane, I’ve saved hundreds of millions of dollars. So I don’t like the optics of what you just saw,” Trump said.
After a week in which Price’s exorbitant use of private charter flights had been in the news, we have no way to know exactly what was going through the president’s mind when he referred to “what you just saw.” But the nugget making its way through the news cycle that day was Price’s offer to pay back the cost of his individual seat on the flights which had been questioned — about $50,000 — but not the total cost of the chartered flights, which is estimated at $400,000 and up.
So, so un-Trump. The implicit admission by Price that there was something wrong with what he did, first and foremost. And then the small-timer touch of trying to cheap out on the cost of the flights. Trump has been accused often of not paying what he said he’d pay, but the amount he says he’ll pay is always yuge.
His critics might say Trump has no business talking about optics in a week when he was engaged in a twitter feud with the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, over disaster relief. That would be underestimating Trump’s expertise in fun house optics, in which little things become big, and big things little.
As bad as it might look, Trump didn’t get drawn into open conflict over recovery efforts in storm-stricken Puerto Rico. He invited it from his first tweet, with its slap at the island’s massive debt and crumbling infrastructure.
With an ever-watchful eye on his base, Trump liked the optics of his feud with Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, no matter how ugly it looked in the main stream media. Or because of how ugly it looked.
Over the weekend, Congress allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which insures some 9 million children in this country, to expire. This is a much, much bigger deal than a former Georgia congressman high-hatting his travel expenses. But Tom Price didn’t get fired for this. It fact he seems to have tacitly supported it.
Nor did Price get canned, or can himself as you prefer, for the embarrassing failure of the Republican Congress to come even close to fashioning a viable alternative to ObamaCare, although the boss in the Oval Office must certainly have been miffed that someone who sat in Congress was no more useful in negotiating it. These are the big things which fun house optics makes small.
“As I said, we renegotiate deals.” In just a few words, Trump expressed his governmental self-image: big shots, sitting around the table with him at the head, hammering out tough deals with hundreds of millions attached. Messing with stuff. Renegotiating, in lots of ways.
It was just this self-image which Price offended when he tripped into the news ahead of his boss.
Price jets away from Washington on a commercial flight (just being figurative here) at a crucial moment for the American health and human services which he was briefly entrusted with protecting.
All other efforts having failed, the administration finds itself in the rudderless position of encouraging the collapse of ObamaCare without waiting for a replacement. Congress will probably be forced to do something about the CHIP program — a five-year reauthorization bill had been prepared in the Senate but didn’t get called up before the deadline — but not before a good deal of consternation in state legislatures which depend on this money to cover their budgets.
We shouldn’t overlook the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico and the impact large numbers of evacuees could have in Florida and other locations as part of the healthcare story, either. And as our problems grow, so will the distorted images in the fun house mirror.