The power of Mrs. Mitch McConnell’s purse

In the latest of ongoing pleasant surprises for his detractors on the right, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Gov. Ron DeSantis more popular in Florida than Trump Sotomayor accuses Supreme Court of bias in favor of Trump administration MORE may have brought the Art of the Deal to the next level in choosing Elaine Chao, the George W. Bush Labor secretary and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Russian interference reports rock Capitol Hill Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat MORE (R-Ky.), as secretary of Transportation.

In his brief election night victory speech, Trump alarmed conservatives by talking up a liberal-sounding wish to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports ... rebuild our infrastructure,” which he promised would become “second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”


Trump apparently wants to spend a trillion dollars doing so, a number Chao herself, in her work at the Heritage Foundation, enjoyed throwing at President Obama as she critiqued his trillion-dollar 2009 stimulus that didn’t stimulate. Such an eagerness to conduct massive government spending doesn’t square too well with a candidate who charged that Obama “doubled the national debt” to what will be “close to $20 trillion when he leaves” in January and hands the keys over to Trump.

But if Trump does start spending a trillion on roads and other infrastructure, will McConnell be able to squawk like Ricky Ricardo that Secretary Lucy is squandering the taxpayers’ cash and has got some splainin’ to do?

McConnell’s Democratic predecessor as Senate majority leader, Joseph Taylor Robinson of Arkansas, was FDR’s dependable New Deal yes man in the 1930s, supporting even Roosevelt’s deplorable court-packing scheme. But could Trump do the Democrats’ most consequential chief executive one better and enlist McConnell’s own wife to henpeck the GOP Senate chief into acquiescing as he spreads a massive fortune in taxpayer chicken feed from sea to shining sea?

Hiring Chao to keep McConnell friendly is a deft piece of shrewdness. But its biggest effect may turn out to be having an energetic private sector champion steering a federal transportation bureaucracy that always seems to end up speeding around in circles.

If Trump wants to spend money on highways, it may mean taking resources away from the liberals’ decided transportation preference: mass transit.

As no less a conservative than the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes wrote during the Clinton era, “We desperately need more highways: more interstates, more beltways, more private toll roads, more arterials radiating from cities to suburbs, and especially more highways between suburbs. There's no way around this. The alternatives — mass transit, special lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles, flextime, telecommuting — have failed miserably. Urban-style gridlock has been common for years now in the suburbs, exurbs, and beyond.”

Barnes added: “The refrain from planners, urban experts, environmentalists, and government officials is that people should get out of their cars and walk or ride buses or trains. But people simply won’t do it. ... Everyone knows about mass transit and carpooling. They just prefer to drive to work or anywhere else, usually alone. Who can blame them? A car gives them flexibility, mobility, and speed in getting around.”

In a way, driving where you like in your own car is the American dream, and Chao may be just the woman to protect that dream from the big-government interests seeking to drag drivers from behind their steering wheels into communal sardine cans. She held federal transportation posts in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, including deputy Transportation secretary. As George W. Bush’s secretary of labor she scaled back regulations. She’s held substantive positions at two large national banks, restored the beleaguered reputation of the nation’s best-known charity, the United Way, as its CEO, and in two stints at the Heritage Foundation insisted that “private-sector job creation, rooted in an economic environment favorable (over the long term) to free enterprise” was the only way a president can lead America to a successful economy.

In “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump said, “I believe in spending what you have to. But I also believe in not spending more than you should.”  As Transportation chief, Elaine Chao may help Trump spend a trillion — or less? — where he should, and she clearly understands that the massive expenditures of the ideologically-motivated Obama stimulus were ineffective.


Thomas McArdle is humorist for the new app ElectionWarz, was senior writer for Investor’s Business Daily, and was a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.