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Column: Trump loyalist Andy Puzder looks at the last six months, and wonders why more hasn’t been done

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Former Labor Secretary-designate and ex-CKE Restaurant CEO Andrew Puzder, right, appeared recently on Stuart Varney’s Fox Business show to speak up for the Senate GOP’s Obamacare repeal plan.
(Fox Business)

Andrew Puzder, the former CEO of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardees fast-food chains, was President Trump’s highest-profile Cabinet nominee to fail the Senate confirmation process — in fact his appointment as Labor secretary didn’t even come to a vote before he withdrew under an onslaught of negative press.

But he’s still a believer in the Trump administration, and in the economic policies that Trump hopes to enact with the help of a Republican majority of both houses of Congress. These include tax reform and, especially, repealing the Affordable Care Act, a topic Puzder addressed with an essay on July 18 calling for enactment of the Senate GOP’s repeal bill. That bill includes a provision inserted by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to allow insurers to sell bare-bones policies in states where they also sell full-service health insurance. Puzder endorsed that provision, too.

I talked with Puzder shortly after that piece appeared to get his on-the-record assessment of Trump’s first six months. It’s a useful perspective from an unapologetic business conservative with both an inside and outside view of the Trump White House.

We spoke before the Senate’s failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Our conversation was cordial even though we disagree on most issues: “You and I don’t agree on whether the ACA was a good idea and whether the Senate bill is a good idea,” he said at one point, which is pretty accurate. The spirit is that of Mark Twain, who wrote, “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.”

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This is really the first president who has used the social media so effectively to communicate with the American people.
Former Labor Secretary-designate and CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzder

Puzder didn’t know Trump well when he was nominated as Labor secretary, and he still bears the scars of a confirmation process in which he feels he was prevented by White House officials from defending himself against some blisteringly personal attacks. These may have played a bigger role in his withdrawal than questions about whether a fast-food chief executive was well cast to head an agency traditionally seen as a defender of employee rights.

Puzder withdrew his nomination in February and stepped down about a month later as CEO of CKE Restaurants, a chain identified with Southern California since it was founded by Carl Karcher, who opened his first Carl’s restaurant in Anaheim in 1945. The company is now headquartered outside Nashville. Since then he’s written op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and other publications and has appeared on television regularly, typically to defend Republican policies; just before our phone conversation he had appeared on Stuart Varney’s program on Fox Business. He says these appearances are always requested by the networks, not the White House.

Here are Puzder’s views, presented essentially unfiltered.

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Trump the manager: “There’s a lot going on around this administration that exceeds the normal bounds of the challenges you face as a new administration coming in … [Trump has] the kind of focus on issues that a CEO would take, a more broad-based focus.”

Trump the tweeter: “I can think of tweets I’ve had that I regret. I think everybody has tweets that they regret. This is really the first president who has used the social media so effectively to communicate with the American people. Does anybody ever say, ‘I wonder what the president’s thinking?’ This president doesn’t go through a press conference. He doesn’t have to go through a press release that the press then interprets. If he wants to communicate with the American people, he just gets on Twitter and he communicates…. I think that more discipline in the tweeting would be good on the one hand; on the other hand, the American people, I think, sense that with President Trump, you’re not seeing one image that’s his public image and one image that’s his private image. I think people feel very confident that at all times you’re seeing who this guy really is.”

Trump the negotiator: “I think President Trump is less concerned than people have been in the past with the idea that you can’t change your mind…. This president is always negotiating, and so sometimes things are said to try and get something accomplished that the president would prefer not to do, but he might say [something] because he’s trying to persuade or cajole someone into reconsidering their position…. What you hear a lot is the voice of a negotiator. What the American people will judge him on is the result of that negotiation, and we’ll just have to wait and see whether he can get the things done that he’s set out to do.”

The Trump economy: “On the economic issues so far, the results have been a lot better than [Trump] is getting credit for in the press…. Since the beginning of the year … 640,000 more people are employed. Last year, in the same period of time it was 47,000 more people.”

(Note: Some context may be appropriate here. Puzder is citing Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on employment gains from its household survey for February 2017, the first month after Trump’s inauguration, through June. At least some of those gains could be ascribed to Obama-era economic policies. Moreover, the BLS statistics on nonfarm employment from its establishment survey, which counts jobs rather than employed people, shows a gain of 631,000 jobs from February through June this year, but higher gains in that period for six of the previous seven years, including 2016, when job growth was 718,000.)

“You’re seeing not only more people working, but more people working better jobs, so I think that’s significant,” Puzder says. “I think you’re seeing the results of a lot of the deregulation that’s occurred since President Trump was elected, and also a real switch in business optimism.… What you hear is, ‘I don’t wake up in the middle of the night anymore, wondering what new executive order or regulation’s going to come out this week that’s going to damage my business.’ I think you’re seeing people willing to hire and grow more, and that’s starting to show up in the numbers.”

The Republican majority: “Congress has done a number of things, but they’re not getting these big projects like healthcare and tax reform and infrastructure through. I think that’s a problem with political will. I just don’t think Republicans have the long-term view of things that Democrats have. I don’t think when Obamacare passed, that all 60 [Democratic] senators who voted for it thought it was a great or even thought that it was a good bill … but they all voted for it. You don’t see that same kind of political determination, a sort of longer-term viewpoint, in the Republican Party…. Politics is a team sport and some of the people on our team just don’t know that….

“I am disappointed with what’s going on in the Senate [with healthcare]…. To me this is discouraging. The country gave Republicans control of state legislatures, they have control of governorships, they gave them a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, and the presidency. It’s time to get some things done, particularly things you’ve been promising to do for seven and a half years. You’ve got a president who’s willing to sign healthcare reform and tax reform. Give him a bill.”

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Affordable Care Act repeal: “The Republicans, maybe because they’ve had a hard time settling on a single proposal, have done a very bad job of selling, and explaining, what their proposal is…. [The Senate bill] eliminates the government compulsion aspects of Obamacare by eliminating the individual and the employer mandates. And it really does put in their place policies to create competition that have a very good chance of actually lowering premiums and enabling insurers to sell people policies that they want to buy, while at the same time protecting people with preexisting conditions….

“If you’re going to get the public on your side on an issue where you’re making big changes — and by the way, the Democrats did a very poor job of this when they passed Obamacare as well, which is why you got such a negative reaction — when people don’t understand change, they generally react adversely to it…. One thing you and I probably could both agree on is that neither side did a good job of explaining what they were doing when they were doing it.…

“I’m not saying that government has no role here…. What I think the Senate bill tries to create an atmosphere for, is a system that depends more on competition and less on government compulsion.”

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

Return to Michael Hiltzik’s blog.

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Under Senate’s Obamacare repeal, some Americans would have to pay more than their total income for health coverage


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