Saturday, December 23, 2017

I Was Wrong (And Right) About Trump

In the wake of a historic tax reform bill and almost all the way through President Trump’s first year in office, I have a confession to make. I was wrong about Donald Trump.

Prior to the election, I had three major objections to Donald Trump. I felt that he was unqualified to be president, I doubted his conservative ideology and I had questions about his character and temperament. On the point of his political ideology at least, events have so proven my fears unfounded and I have to admit that the Trump Administration has accomplished more for conservatives than I expected. In addition to tax reform, Trump’s only significant legislative win thus far, his judicial appointments and deregulation represent important gains that should be applauded by conservatives like me.

In spite of the limited successes of the Trump Administration, I still cannot offer my unlimited support to President Trump. Even though his administration has governed far more conservatively than I dared hope, my other objections to a Trump presidency remain.

With respect to Trump’s qualification to lead the government, he has confirmed my fears. After 11 months as president, Trump has shown himself to be the same man that he was on the campaign trail. Trump’s successes seem to have more to do with his cabinet appointees than with Trump’s skill at governance. With respect to tax reform, the success seems to have come despite Trump rather than because of him. While Republican congressional leaders worked to write and gather support for the bill, Trump was tweeting about NFL players.

While Trump’s lack of legislative experience did not derail the tax reform bill, the president’s distracting behavior may have contributed to the bill’s unpopularity. Like the Democrats in 2010, Republicans have expended their political capital on a bill that most voters don’t want. Astoundingly, the Republican tax cuts are even less popular that some past tax increases. If President Trump had used his bully pulpit and Twitter account to educated the public about the positive effects of lowering the corporate tax rate, the chief goal of the bill, and how individual taxes will go down for most taxpayers as well, the GOP might have found more support for the legislation.

The grunt work of passing tax reform was carried out by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who get little credit for their efforts. Realizing this, President Trump was uncharacteristically gracious to McConnell in a tweet congratulating him on the passage of the tax reform bill.

Sadly, events have also confirmed my fears about Trump’s character and temperament. The president’s behavior has caused several notable setbacks for the Republican Party over the past few months. Mr. Trump’s war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, while popular with conservatives, has brought the United States to the brink of a second Korean War. President Trump originally had the right instincts in Alabama when he said that Republican candidate Roy Moore should withdraw. Moore stayed in and Mr. Trump eventually reversed course and endorsed Moore, shortly before Moore suffered an embarrassing defeat. Moore’s behavior and Trump’s endorsement damaged the Republican brand.

If 2017 has shown anything, it is that the Trump Administration has a surprising amount of potential. Possibly because President Trump is an outsider with few preconceived notions of acceptable policy positions there are opportunities for significant changes, such as the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, during his presidency.

The downside is that Trump’s erratic behavior and low approval ratings continue to dog the GOP. Polling shows that Democrats have an enormous lead in the generic congressional ballot leading into 2018. If Republicans and President Trump cannot win voters over to their agenda, then future “winning” will be impossible and previous gains will be endangered.

I don’t view Donald Trump as a conservative savior or as the only man who could have turned the country around. Any of the other Republican candidates would have arguably done a better job and accomplished more, such as passing the health care reform bill. Nevertheless, Donald Trump is the president that we have. Looking at his record objectively, Trump is undoubtedly “better than Hillary,” which is a low bar in itself.

If Trump wants to be great, he must change and rise to the occasion. He must put down his phone and show himself to be the dealmaker that he claimed to be during the campaign. Trump must tone down the rhetoric and reach beyond his base to moderate voters. Trump’s presidency depends on winning the support of people who did not vote for him in 2016. He cannot assume that will cruise to re-election with another popular vote loss and victory in the Electoral College. The tax reform bill may help, but it won’t be enough to stave off an electoral landslide by itself.

The stakes are high. If the Democrats win control of Congress next year, prospects for advancing the Republican agenda will be nil. Worse, President Trump’s entire legacy would be at risk. A Democrat Congress might be able to start rolling back the accomplishments of 2017 and impeachment would be a real possibility.

The best way for Trump to defend his legacy and continue to advance his agenda is make peace with Democrats. Tax reform was passed with a simple majority, but other bills will require Democrat votes for cloture. The already small Republican majority will be smaller yet when Doug Jones (D-Ala.) joins the Senate.

Trump may realize this. In a tweet that sounds as if it could have been written by Democrat, Trump said, “At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion. Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start. After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!”

If Trump can successfully pivot to the center, he may be able to appeal to moderate voters and save his presidency.

Originally published on The Resurgent

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