How Tom Price was taken out

Was former HHS Secretary Tom Price seduced into hypocrisy?  How does one explain the downfall of a spending critic?

Price's resignation is dealing a significant blow to the efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, which is still a priority, if a delayed one, for the Trump Reform Agenda.  Price is an expert on medical care, an M.D. himself, whose insight and efforts could have been a major contribution to future legislative proposals.

The damage extends to his fellow Cabinet secretaries, who will be highly constrained in the use of time-saving jets and less able to travel around than their predecessors in the Obama administration.  Trump-haters have won bigly, as many of the top executives of his administration are denied what virtually every large company in the United States considers vital tool: private jets.  Officials involved in national security are allowed use of jets for obvious reasons.  But now it will take permission from White House chief of staff Kelly for the other Cabinet secretaries to use private jets.

Of course, the buck stops with Price on his boneheaded decision to use a chartered jet to fly from Dulles Airport to Philadelphia.  That one trip was critical in building a public case against him.  He undid himself and became too much of a liability for the Trump administration.

Unquestionably, Price bears the responsibility.  A crusader against government wasteful spending, he should have known better.  But I am fascinated by the question of why he didn't know better.

There are two general lines of explanation for this abandonment of his former principles.

The first and most obvious line of reasoning is the old seduction trap that has undone so many crusaders of various sorts.  Once in a position to gratify the urges that were denounced so vigorously, the self-righteous critic turns out to be a hypocrite.  When the opportunity for livin' large presented itself, he could not resist.  This is a familiar and irresistible drama, and it is the version that would have been hammered by the media had Price remained in office.  President Trump gets it when it comes to politics as reality TV.

But there is a second possible explanation: that when Price's travel plans were put together, the charter option appeared to be reasonable when presented to him by the professional staff that had been in place for decades.  Am I paranoid if I wonder if some of the bureaucrats at HHS would present precedents for such use of jets?  And later someone would leak this?  Do you think the Deep State has a branch at HHS?

What if, for example, when a schedule was presented to Price that featured the IAD-PHL jet charter, Price asked questions about whether or not this was really necessary?  That is what I would expect from a deficit hawk.  I expect that he could have been presented with arguments that this is standard operating procedure.  After all, when it was revealed that Loretta Lynch used a private jet to fly to Phoenix – a route flown by commercial airlines[1] – I don't remember a single person screaming about the abuse of taxpayers by such flights.

In addition, the cost of one Acela ticket is not the relevant comparison to the cost of a charter flight.

Yes, Acela is relatively cheap and fast, but figure in the costs and potential disruption from the entourage of a Cabinet secretary being kept secure and accommodated at very busy Amtrak stations in D.C. and Philly.  How much extra planning and personnel costs would be generated by this alternative?  On the train itself, I would think an entire car would need to be taken.  Local police liaisons and extra police manpower would be needed at busy, congested urban railway stations.

Was that even possible in the time horizon for the trip?  Protecting an entourage at the private jet terminal of an airport is much easier and cheaper.  

Price was suddenly thrust into an executive position in charge of a trillion-dollar budget in which the cost of a jet charter isn't even a rounding error.  Facing a demanding schedule, he could have forgotten his old passion for an abstemious style of governing and blinded himself to the P.R. disaster he was constructing.  He could have rationalized it.

In reality, it is quite likely that a bit of each alternative was mixed together in producing the behavior that led to the downfall of Tom Price.  Tom Price was seduced into a bureaucratic rationale for the behavior he had repeatedly criticized.

The lesson is clear for the rest of the Cabinet.  They are living out symbolic as well as substantive roles.  Anything that can be made to look bad about their behavior will be leaked and made to look bad in the media.

[1] Expedia would sell a ticket from Dulles to Phoenix next Monday for a mere $224 on Frontier and $287 on Delta, but any Cabinet secretary had better hurry, because only a few tickets are left at those levels.  They aren't nonstop, but the new assumption is that time doesn't matter that much, and the price of one ticket is the relevant comparison.