By Paul Rozycki
It’s probably just a coincidence that in the same week that the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus announced they were folding up their tent after 146 years, Donald Trump was sworn in as our next president.
But in light of last year’s events, it’s understandable that the distinction between the circus and real life has become entirely too blurred and the competition too intense for heirs of P.T. Barnum. In an age of “alternative facts,” fake news, and bombastic blowhards, the average high-wire walker, lion tamer or car full of clowns doesn’t really have a chance.
Even with the demise of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, politics should provide us with at least three rings of entertainment, thrills and chills (maybe more chills than thrills), as well as a few side show acts. These may not be as enjoyable as the travelling road show, but will probably have a longer lasting impact. Here are a few of the major acts to look for in the upcoming year.
In the first ring: the Nation
President Trump has clearly emerged as the ringmaster in this year’s circus act and he’s likely to generate a long list of things to watch for in the year to come. A few of the more important are:
The Wall: Will he really build the wall with Mexico? Is there any serious chance that Mexico will pay for it? Is there any practical way that Congress will? In the end, will it make any real difference or help deal with the immigration issue?
Obamacare: Like nearly all Republicans, Trump has promised to “Repeal and Replace” the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The problem is that while they are pretty well set to repeal the law, they are having a difficult time agreeing on a workable replacement. Keeping the parts of the law that most people like, such as the protection for preexisting conditions and keeping children on parent’s health care until they are 26, will most likely require keeping parts that many don’t like, such as the mandate to purchase insurance. This has been an easy campaign slogan, but may prove to be much more difficult to put into practice. It’s going to be a high wire balancing act to pull it off.
Infrastructure: Trump has promised to rebuild roads, bridges, airports (and maybe water systems?) around the country. This is one of his proposals that might find support from Democrats. But will the Republicans be willing and able to find the money to pay for all of it?
Protectionism and trade deals: Trump pulled in much of his working class support by denouncing U.S. trade agreements such as NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He also threatened corporations with high tariffs for those goods not made in the U.S. A few corporations have already announced plans to move or keep some jobs and production in the U.S. But, how long will globally- oriented businesses support such protectionist measures? How long will the Republican Party support these measures? Will it be a wise move for the U.S. and the world economy?
Beyond that (among many other things) it will be worth watching to see how the anti-Trump protests that followed the inauguration develop. Will they become an organized force to oppose him for the next four years, or simply a one-day event?
In the second ring: Michigan’s State of the State
Governor Snyder kicked off the second ring with his State of the State speech in January. As is typical for the governor, it was a long list of accomplishments backed up by numbers and percentages. In contrast to last year’s Flint apology speech, there was only a brief mention of Flint’s water crisis in his 2017 presentation. Yet the speech did give us several signs of what to watch for this year.
Infrastructure: Will there be money for infrastructure repairs in Michigan? Obviously Flint will need much for its new pipes and water system, as will the city of Fraser, where collapsing pipes have destroyed several homes. The worry is that there are a lot more Flints and Frasers out there and no huge pot of money. Michigan’s roads also have a long way to go to be safe and sound. Snyder’s chilly relations with the Trump White House may not help to bring in federal funds.
Pension reform: The legislature almost tackled reforms of both the teacher and municipal worker’s pension systems during the lame duck session at the end of 2016. Protests and lack of time forced them to back off, but it will likely be on the agenda this year and will be one of the truly hot button issues of the year.
Income tax: There have been proposals to repeal the state income tax over the next several decades, but no clear plans on how to replace the lost revenue, which is a major part of the state budget. It probably will be a campaign slogan, but has little realistic chance of passing.
Criminal justice reforms: The governor suggested several reforms to reduce both the number of prisoners in the Michigan system and the nearly $40,000 a year cost of incarceration. Proposals are in the works to offer more mental health assistance to those in the system, also as a cost saving measure. This might be one area where both Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.
Gubernatorial election: As if just surviving one election wasn’t enough, the players for the 2018 gubernatorial contest are already getting in the game. At the moment, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has announced her candidacy and Dan Kildee is considered a serious prospect as well. Among Republicans, Attorney General Bill Schuette is an all but certain candidate, as is Lt. Governor Brian Calley. Republican Jim Hines has already announced his intention to run. Before the year is out, other candidates will likely toss their hats in the ring.
In the third ring: Flint
Three years of water crisis: As Flint’s water crisis moves beyond the thousand day mark, we’re sure to face continuing problems over the water issue. Will the Mayor Weaver’s Fast Start program pick up speed to replace our pipes in the foreseeable future? Will we still be the recipient of national attention, and funds, as other cities find that they also have similar water issues? Will there be more indictments of Flint officials who were involved with decision to switch to Flint River water? When we finally hear the ‘all clear’ sign on Flint’s water, will anyone really trust that it’s safe to drink?
City council elections: The city council is up for election this year. What impact will the water crisis have on Flint’s city council races? Will any more members of the council be arrested and removed for disrupting meetings? Will Mayor Weaver support a slate of candidates who are more amenable than the current council? Will her opponents do the same?
The side show: the World
It’s certainly wrong to call it a side show, but the rise of Trump’s nationalistic appeal has been echoed by similar movements in Europe. This year Germany, France and the Netherlands will have major elections and nationalistic, protectionist and right wing parties are all expected to be contenders. All of which point to an unsettled international picture for some time to come.
All in all, with the potential perils in this year’s politics, I’d rather leave the circus to the professionals and have Barnum and Bailey’s clowns, high-wire walkers, lion tamers and ringmasters back in the center ring.
They are a lot more entertaining than the politicians, and a lot less disturbing.
Political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.