As President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell gave his boss some very sage and hauntingly prophetic advice prior to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003: “If you break it, you own it.”
Known as the “Pottery Barn” rule in military and diplomatic circles, it refers to the fact that if you invade a country, are victorious and topple the existing government, you then “own” the country. All its problems, challenges, shortcomings and the end results now become yours. You own it. Looking back, the soundness and wisdom of Powell’s words cannot be overstated.
Today, Republicans are staring the Pottery Barn rule square in the face, and the unease it’s creating among them is telling. In the years since the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” was enacted, Republicans have engaged in a consistent effort to dismantle the legislation. No assistance was offered to amend or help fix the problems with Obamacare. The nuclear option was the preferred option: Totally destroy it.
Now, however, it’s becoming exceedingly apparent that maybe that wasn’t the wisest course. President Donald Trump commented not long ago “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” When the rubber meets the road, bumper sticker slogans and vague promises wilt in the face of complex policy issues. The thought of “owning” a problem becomes unnerving.
“Repeal and replace” was a popular and oft-heard refrain. However, now having to flesh out real solutions and knowing they will own the results, consensus in Congress is difficult to come by. A poll taken on the health care bill up for a vote in the House of Representatives has the support of only 12 percent of Americans. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
Many Republican voters enthusiastically embraced Trump’s message and candidacy. His message of “America First,” though vague and lacking in detail, was incredibly appealing to many. He was seen as the candidate willing to tell it like it is and speak the truth, as opposed to all the other candidates who were viewed as professional politicians willing to lie and deceive the people for personal gain. He was the one willing to look out and speak for the little guy, the common person. It was time to put someone in office like him, someone who would put “America First.”
Lacking specifics during the campaign, now the public has been presented with a budget recently released by the White House, and referred to by Trump’s budget director as an “America First” budget. It’s a stunning document. The White House may refer to it as an “America First” budget, but “People Last” is a more appropriate name.
The budget has a stated goal of, among other things, increasing military spending by $54 billion and allocating $1.5 billion to build President Trump’s border wall. Crafted to advance the nation’s “hard power” (military, defense and national security apparatus), it does so at the expense of money normally spent on such things as people, natural disasters, the environment, research and diplomacy.
Our current Secretary of Defense, the highly decorated Gen. Jim Mattis, stated in 2013 when appearing before members of Congress at a National Security Advisory Council meeting, “So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget … If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” Well, with the $10 billion the president wants to cut from the State Department, it seems Gen. Mattis may want to start stocking up on ammo.
The president’s “America First” budget doesn’t just eviscerate the State Department; it dramatically hurts the working poor and people in small towns and rural areas, people who make up the core of Trump’s constituency. It eliminates or deeply cuts programs such as those that support affordable housing, job training, assistance in paying home heating bills, community banking, nutrition programs, community development grants, community learning centers and even help for homeless veterans.
The president’s “America First” budget, which seeks to “redefine the proper role” of the federal government, does so in a fashion that will undermine the economic security, as well as the health and safety, of a large segment of the very people that voted for him.
Closer to home, in an area of the country that was solidly for Trump, a proposed 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard, 17 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 11 percent cut to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a 25 percent cut to Environmental Protection Agency have many leaders extremely worried. Be careful what you wish for.
Of course Congress will have the final say about what the 2017 budget eventually looks like, but the president’s proposal is a powerful statement. It also provides a powerful lesson. When it comes to governing, specifics may be boring to hear during a campaign, but they’re important. Simplicity may be appealing, but when it comes to leading a nation, or any political position for that matter, it can be harmful, even dangerous, to elect someone without knowing specifically what they plan on doing once they’re elected.
A majority of the electorate saw it as refreshing to finally have a candidate say what they wanted to hear, even though he often spoke in generalities about what he wanted to do. Be careful what you wish for.
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