After one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern history, there was a brief glimmer of hope, during the Transition, that constructive, bipartisan change was possible.
President-elect Trump began nominating serious people for serious jobs. At the same time, Trump began sketching the outlines of a substantive policy agenda that would appeal to both the center-right, but more strikingly, to the center left, by placing infrastructure spending and inner city blight in the same priority with reforms to healthcare, tax and regulatory policy. Unanchored ideologically, Trump could pursue coalitions in Congress to suit the issue, delivering real legislative results and breaking the gridlock in DC.
During the same period, it appeared that the saner heads in the Democrat establishment could prevail, calculating that there might, in fact, be areas where they agreed with Trump. While grassroots progressive rage was real, Trump’s election also served as a cautionary political tale for Democrats, who had lost their white, working class base. There was a real opportunity to both champion Democrat priorities in a revitalized focus on urban policies and domestic investment, in cooperation with Trump, while still serving as the voice of opposition. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was the nexus, with impeccable progressive bone fides, but who had also known Trump for decades. If there was a deal to be cut, these were the two to do it.
Just 23 days into the Trump presidency, and it appears that the hope of a governing Washington have collapsed, rooted in toxic political opportunism by Democrats, self-inflicted wounds and incompetence by the Administration and general confusion by congressional Republicans. Trump’s success, and the country’s, depends on whether the original hope can be salvaged.
The Democrats: there was a time when the Party out of power was called the “Loyal Opposition.”
In contrast to any modern example, the Democrats and their progressive allies have moved from political opposition to Trump policies, to personal opposition to the man, regularly taking actions that undercut, insult and defame the President. No taunt is too trivial or toxic to convey searing contempt. But in so doing the Left has blurred the line between Trump and the office of the presidency, with the resulting, jaw-dropping contempt for both. It is insidious to American democracy. Caught between the genuine fury of the liberal grass-roots and the possibility of advancing parts of the Democrat agenda with a Republican president, the Democrat Establishment has gone all in with the base.
This is what happens when the Establishment backs and fixes the election for the wrong candidate.
Pundits have spilled barrels of ink explaining how Trump “stole” the election, but like a mark for a skilled purveyor of “Three Card Monty,” they have their eyes on the wrong ball. The actual story here is of a Democrat establishment that fixed the primary process so that the most flawed and polarizing candidate won the nomination.
The evidence is clear to see for anyone who actually wants to look. Forlorn liberals who have gone soldiered on in a vain search for “tampered votes” in Michigan and Wisconsin, might do well to revisit the primary results of those two states.
Mrs. Clinton lost Wisconsin by 14 points. In Michigan, where Establishment union support mattered, Sanders still won by nearly a point and a half. In November, Clinton lost both to Trump by less than a point, touting a message of economic nationalism that was eerily similar to Sanders.
Even in Pennsylvania, where Clinton won the primary decisively, a look at the map shows that outside Democrat Establishment strongholds in the cities, Sanders won the interior; the same counties that powered Trump to victory in November.
In a “change” election, the “Big Feet” in the Democrat party believed the safest bet was the most Establishment nominee among the 21 candidates who ran for office in 2016, a nominee who had a history a scandal stretching back a quarter century, with fresh controversy erupting by the month. One of the most polarizing candidates in post-WWII American history In retrospect, the only credible “change” candidate on the Democrat side was Sanders. But the Democrat Establishment did everything they could to stop him.
Say what you will about the GOP, but the RNC did not rig the system to prevent the grass-roots choice from winning the nomination – come what may. The two paths are telling.
At the end of the day, the Left has only its own Establishment to blame. And if you are part of the surviving portions of that Establishment in Congress, the same people whose decision to back Mrs. Clinton effectively puts at risk all President Obama managed to create, what do you do?
You go with the base and hope they don’t remember what you are responsible for.
The Trump Administration: on paper, the Trump administration is on a promising path. The symbolism of the first week’s Executive Orders, the high-profile meetings with unions and business leaders. The unrelenting focus on jobs and the economy. Trump was delivering, not just for his base, but for America.
And the hints at broader policy were equally encouraging. Repeal and replace Obamacare, serious regulatory reform and a comprehensive re-write of the tax code to lower rates, make American companies competitive globally and catalyze organic economic growth. The high point was the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to replace Antonin Scalia’s seat on SCOTUS. A superbly qualified jurist, the Administration could not have made a better selection for the inheritor of Scalia’s legacy.
However, the reality of the Trump administration is quite different.
Management Savvy: The president advanced to the Oval Office, in part, on his reputation as a skilled manager of a company worth billions. Thus far, there is very little evidence of that savvy.
President Trump has catalyzed different power centers in the White House, organized into concentric circles, that have already become warring camps, creating tension and chaos. While Bannon, Priebus and Conway fight for power and influence, young and inexperienced advisors Stephen Miller and son-in-law Jared Kushner, play outsized roles with a president who often acts on the advice of the last person he talked to. Foreign ambassadors are now seeking out Kushner and bypassing normal channels, including SECSTATE, in an attempt to get to the President.
More perplexing, the President has placed Bannon on the National Security Council (NSC). Just think for a second if Bush had put Rove on the NSC or Obama has placed Axelrod there. The NSC is no place for a political strategist.
With regard to the practical logistics of staffing the Executive branch, the Trump operation is anything but a smooth running ship. “Beachhead Teams” that landed at executive agencies on January 20th were distributed on an ad hoc basis with little coordination. The deployment of Schedule C appointees, those junior staffers (usually campaign workers) who expand the Administration’s footprint in departments, as more senior management is confirmed, have not been called.
And where are the more senior nominees to flesh out the Administration? The White House “Nominations” page is blank. True, the Democrats have obstructed the movement of Trump’s Cabinet through the confirmation process, but by this point in a new Administration, a slew of sub-cabinet nominations have been made – the work of a grueling personnel process that begins after the election. Bereft of people to hold hearings on, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will next consider the US ambassador to Israel – as it is the only known appointment at the State Department that the Administration has made public.
The success of an Administration is determined in the first six months. Right now Trump is off to a rocky start.
Policy Savvy: there are some solid ideas on the table, but accomplishment in Washington is about implementation. Here the Administration has been weak.
If there is a strategic plan or framework, there is no evidence of it. The White House appears to manage tactically, to the new cycle – a gargantuan mistake, where the Administration is virtually held hostage to networks that themselves are under pressure to create fresh content 24/7.
Early decisions have been dangerously ad hoc.
Even if the President’s EO on immigration had been the best idea he had articulated during the campaign, the implementation was rushed, sloppy and not thought through. At a minimum, the Administration should have waited until AG Sessions was confirmed so that DoJ could weigh in. Indeed, seeking the counsel and input from DOJ, DHS and NSC might have revealed the flaws in the EO that ultimately led to court battles that leave the President no solid alternative but retreat.
If a fight is worth fighting, it is worth fighting to win, not just score points with the base.
Political Savvy: this has been uneven. The early EOs and the Gorsuch nomination were home runs for President Trump. But POTUS himself is hurting his own Administration with Twitter rants that are at turns, embarrassing, insulting, juvenile and ultimately counter-productive. They distract policy and staff, needless alienate political friends and opponents, and reveal – for better or worse – a man overly concerned with any criticism against him.
President Trump is an instinct player, and those instincts got him from the escalator of Trump Tower to the White House when no one thought it was possible. The missteps so far are correctable, but only if Trump himself steps up, with the requisite amount of discipline, to make the changes necessary. Get out of the corner, find the middle and reorder the political map by solid accomplishment.
Congressional Republicans: yes, this is an entirely different kind of presidential administration than those of the past, and it takes getting used to, but it’s hard not to be frustrated with congressional Republicans thus far.
Can someone, anyone, decide what the plan is for Obamacare? Talk to five Members and get five different responses. “Repeal and Replace” becomes “Repair” and then “Repair and Replace.” And then the talk about GOP reluctance to repeal that law? Is that true? You have spent seven years railing against O-Care, moving dozens of bills to repeal and now, now you don’t have an idea of what to do?
That’s a disgrace.
This is nothing short of the most solemn promise the GOP made to voters. Elect us, give us a Republican POTUS and we will repeal O-Care. Put on your big boy pants and get it done. Millions of Americans are waiting, bleeding cash for insurance that does little but collect premiums and send bills.
Yes, the Democrats and the Left are going to roast you. But if you put together a thoughtful plan that ensures the availability of coverage for all Americans at an affordable price, you will disarm the Left on one its most important issues. The tools are there.
Movement is life. If you don’t move now, as the Democrats radicalize and the Administration flounders, fed up voters will find some who will move on their behalf.
Despite all the centrifugal forces at work here, there is still an opportunity to seize and restore the center-right middle of America in our politics. The Left’s self-radicalization creates broken field running for the Party and leaders that offer common sense solutions. The GOP should be in pole position to run the table. With leadership, prioritization, coordination, message discipline and courage, this is still within reach.
Do Trump and GOP leaders have the gumption to do what is necessary?