A week ago, I posted on the likely political impact of the end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of what have become known as the Trump-Russia scandals and of the release of Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of its principal conclusions – which appear to put these charges and the threat of presidential impeachment they created behind Mr. Trump.
Now it’s time to think about a related and at least equally important subject: the policy effects. They could be profound enough to redefine the Trump presidency and the chief executive’s chances for reelection – even though the early indications seem to be saying exactly the opposite in ways that are sure to disappoint much of Mr. Trump’s political base. Here’s what I mean.
Ever since his administration’s opening months, I’ve believed that Mr. Trump’s policy choices have been strongly influenced by impeachment fears. Specifically, (and I have zero first-hand knowledge here) because President Trump feared that the Democrats and many mainstream Republicans were after his scalp, he concluded that he needed to appease his remaining allies in the latter’s ranks with policy initiatives they’ve long supported even though they broke with his own much less conventional and more populist campaign promises.
In other words, it was the Russia and related scandal charges that were preventing “Trump from being Trump.”
Moreover, this reasoning makes sense even if the President was certain that he faced no legal jeopardy. For impeachment ultimately is a political process, and although establishing criminal guilt is clearly helpful, it’s not essential.
The main evidence for my proposition has been the early Trump decision to prioritize Obamacare repeal over trade policy overhaul and infrastructure building; his almost libertarian-like initial budget proposal (at least when it comes to non-defense discretionary federal pending); his business-heavy tax cut; and numerous foreign policy moves that more closely resembled the globalist approaches he decried while running for the White House than the America First strategy his promised.
But although President Trump now seems certain to finish out his first term in office, he still seems to be currying favor with the Republican establishment. Just look at his latest budget proposal, and decision to go after Obamacare again – the healthcare move reportedly made despite the pleas of establishment Republicans like House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy to move on from an issue now stamped as a major loser politically and threat to the party’s 2020 election prospects across the board.
It’s true that many of Mr. Trump’s trade and immigration policies still clash with the donor-driven agenda of the Republican establishment, and especially the party’s Congressional leaders. But even on these signature issues, the President arguably could be breaking even more sharply with the longstanding Republican and conservative traditions.
For example, Mr. Trump continues to keep suspended his threat of higher tariffs on many imports from China in apparent hopes of reaching a successful trade deal even though Beijing still seems determined to avoid significant concessions on “structural issues” (like intellectual property theft and technology extortion) and on enforcement.
On immigration, the President has just raised the 2019 cap on visas for unskilled largely seasonal foreign guest workers to levels never reached even during the Obama years. His administration also has permitted visas for farm workers to hit record levels and done little to stem the growth of work permits for foreign graduates of U.S. college and universities that critics charge suppress wages for high skill native-born workers.
One intriguing explanation for this continuing policy schizophrenia comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In a piece this past weekend, Douthat made the case that, although President Trump’s actual record has been largely heretical in mainstream conservative terms, when it comes to staffing (and especially key staff positions)
“there are effectively two Trump presidencies. One offers something like what the president promised on the campaign trail — a break with Paul Ryan’s green-eyeshade approach to entitlement reform, a more moderate tack on health care, an indifference to Obama-era conservative orthodoxies on fiscal and monetary policy.
“The other offers a continuation of the Tea Party’s insistence on spending cuts and Obamacare repeal, and appropriately its present leader is a former Tea Party congressman — Mick Mulvaney, the Zelig of the administration, whose zeal is apparently the main reason that the Obamacare lawsuit now has administration support.”
And the main reason for this confusing mix? The President has relied “on personnel who are associated with 2010-era G.O.P. orthodoxy, rather than elevating the kind of conservatives who have actively theorized for a more populist right.”
It’s so hard to argue with Douthat’s facts that I won’t. But they still leave the main puzzle unexplained – why so many of the President’s personnel picks have been so un-Trumpian. And much of the answer points to a problem that was clear to me ever since Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy achieved critical mass and momentum, and that doesn’t seem solvable for the foreseeable future.
Specifically, as I’ve previously noted, conservative populists (I’m never been thrilled with this description of “Trumpism,” but for the time being it’s convenient) have never created the institutions and therefore cohorts of first-rate policy specialists remotely capable of staffing a conservative populist administration. Even if you want to identify immigration as an exception – where organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies put out top-flight studies – it’s clear that nothing of the kind has ever existed on the trade and foreign policy fronts.
And even worse, because of the long lead-times needed to achieve these goals, Mr. Trump appears doomed to dealing with shortages of competent true-believers as far as the eye can see. In fact, he’ll face a special challenge in the next few months, as the second halves of first presidential terms tend to see the departures of many early, often burned out appointees. And of course, the Trump presidency has already experienced much more than its share of turnover.
So I’m expecting an indefinite continuation of the eye-popping sequence of events of the previous week – in which Trump Education Secretary Betsy deVos announced an end to federal funding of the popular Special Olympics program, a public outcry ensued, and the President abruptly reversed her decision.
It’s hard to imagine that this kind of zigging and zagging can win President Trump reelection. But it’s also conceivable that the post-impeachment situation will “Let Trump be Trump” just enough – especially if the Democrats err in picking an overall strategy for opposing him. After all, nothing has been more common in recent American political history than completely off-base predictions of Mr. Trump’s demise.