Trump, year one

William McGurn has one point of view about The Donald’s first year as president …

This time one year ago, the assumption dominating political coverage was that the only people more stupid than Donald Trump were the deplorables who elected him.

Since then, of course, President-elect Trump has become President Trump. Over his 11 months in office, he has put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and four times as many judges on the appellate courts as Barack Obama did his first year; recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; withdrawn from the Paris climate accord; adopted a more resolute policy on Afghanistan than the one he’d campaigned on; rolled back the mandate forcing Catholic nuns, among others, to provide employees with contraception and abortifacients; signed legislation to open up drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; initiated a bold, deregulatory assault on the administrative state—and topped it all off with the first major overhaul of the tax code in more than 30 years.

And yet that Mr. Trump is a very stupid man remains the assumption dominating his press coverage.

Let this columnist confess: He did not see Mr. Trump’s achievements coming, at least at first. In the worst sense, populism means pandering to public appetites at the expense of sound policy. Too often populists who get themselves elected find either that they cannot implement what they promised, or that when they do, there are disastrous and unexpected consequences.

Add to this the sorry experience America had recently had with men, also outside conventional politics, who ran successfully for governorships: former pro wrestler and Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. Their respective administrations each began with high enthusiasm but ended in defeat and disillusionment. What would make anyone think Mr. Trump would do better?

Start with Mr. Ventura. His populism, like Mr. Trump’s, featured open ridicule of the press. At one point he issued press cards listing them as “official jackals.” Also like Mr. Trump, he was treated as simple-minded because he was not a professional pol. When David Letterman listed his top 10 campaign slogans for Mr. Ventura, No. 1 was “it’s the stupidity, stupid.”

In his first year Mr. Ventura’s approval rating soared to 73%, and while in office he did manage to push through tax rebates and a property-tax reform. By his last year, however, his vetoes were regularly overridden, spending had shot up, and the magic was gone. In the end, he decided against seeking a second term.

Next came Mr. Schwarzenegger, who in 2003 announced his run for governor on “The Tonight Show.” Mr. Schwarzenegger’s pitch was essentially Mr. Trump’s: The state’s politics had been so corrupted by the political class that Californians needed a strongman from the outside to shake it up.

The Governator did succeed in getting himself re-elected three years later, which is more than Mr. Ventura did. In the end, however, he was defeated by those he’d denounced as the “girlie men” of Sacramento, and his package of reforms went nowhere. The man who entered office promising to cut spending and revive the state’s economy ended up signing a huge tax increase, while debt nearly tripled under his watch.

Now we have President Trump. In one sense he is not unique: Almost all GOP presidents are stereotyped as not very bright. Ask Ike, or George W. Bush, or even Lincoln. Nor is it uncommon, in the headiness of a White House, for even the lowliest staffer to come to regard himself as the intellectual superior of the president he works for.

In Mr. Trump’s case, critics equate lowbrow tastes (e.g., well-done steaks covered in ketchup) as confirmation of a lack of brainpower. It can make for great sport. But starting out with the assumption that the president you are covering is a boob can prove debilitating to clear judgment.

Quick show of hands: How many of those in the press who continue to dismiss Mr. Trump as stupid publicly asserted he could never win the 2016 election—or would never get anyone decent to work for him in the unlikely miracle he did get elected?

The Trump presidency may still go poof for any number of reasons—if the promised economic growth doesn’t materialize, if the public concludes that his inability to ignore slights on Twitter is getting the best of his presidency, or if Democrats manage to leverage his low approval ratings and polarizing personality into a recapture of the House and Senate this coming November. And yes, it’s possible to regard Mr. Trump’s presidency as not worth the price.

But stupid? Perhaps the best advice for anti-Trumpers comes from one of their own, a Vermont Democrat named Jason Lorber. Way back in April, in an article for the Burlington Free Press, the retired state politician wrote that “while it may be good for a chuckle, calling or even thinking someone else stupid is virtually guaranteed to give them the last laugh.”

Is that not what Mr. Trump is now enjoying at the close of his first year?

… and Jonah Goldberg has another:

Contrary to what many predicted, President Trump’s end-of-year accomplishment list isn’t that skimpy.

That’s an analytical observation. For many, particularly liberals and Democrats, Trump’s first year hasn’t been merely bad. It’s a great evil, a grievous wound to the American body politic.

But even that is a kind of partisan tribute to what’s been accomplished on his watch: a record number of judicial appointments, including a Supreme Court justice; the defeat of Islamic State; repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate; tax reform; and major rollbacks of various regulations, from arctic drilling to net neutrality.

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Trump is the most unpopular first-year president in American history, for reasons far beyond mere bad press.

Still, among conservatives, the tally of “wins” has sparked some intramural debates. The most prominent one is how Trump skeptics and avowed Never Trumpers should respond to those wins. For writers such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and The Atlantic’s David Frum, the only legitimate response is either to ignore these successes or denigrate them, lest people lose sight of the threat Trump poses to the country. Others, including myself, argue instead that one needn’t deny the merits of a policy victory simply because the president might get credit for it.

This debate skips over the larger question of whether these victories happened because of Trump or despite him.

On one level, the president always gets the credit — or blame — for anything that happens on his watch. But Trump poses a challenge to such superficial scorekeeping. No president in American history has rejected Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” motto as vehemently or consistently as this one. He never accepts responsibility for his own mistakes, never mind those of his administration or party. When American troops die, the commander in chief blames “the generals.” When legislation fails, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the “establishment” are at fault.

Trump boosters agree. Conservative writer Roger Simon argues that all “remaining Never Trumpers” must apologize for being wrong about the president. He chalks up Trump’s “astoundingly successful” first year to the fact the president is a “quick study.”

But what evidence is there that Trump has actually learned the art of presidential management?

Aside from the mandatory flattery required of Republican elected officials, there’s remarkably little testimony that Trump has involved himself in the process of governing. Tax reform was carried across the finish line by the GOP congressional leadership. Net neutrality was repealed by independent Republicans at the Federal Communications Commission.

Foreign policy is a more mixed bag. If the president deserves credit for the defeat of Islamic State, it’s because he let “the generals” do their thing. On the other hand, credit (or blame) for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris accord on climate change certainly goes to him.

In general, it seems to me that Trump’s success (such as it is) is less attributable to sudden mastery of the issues than to staying out of the way of rank-and-file Republican policymakers, activists, and bureaucrats.

For instance, the task of selecting judicial appointees, starting with Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, has largely been outsourced to the Federalist Society. When the president revealed his new national-security strategy last week, his speech — the usual campaign blather — had only a passing resemblance to the underlying document. The tax bill is clearly more in line with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ideology than candidate Trump’s supposed populism. As for a counter-example: When Trump was “hands-on” with Obamacare repeal, he often revealed he didn’t even know what was in the legislation.

In 2016, some conservatives argued that Republicans should vote as if we live in a parliamentary democracy, electing a party, not a person. Trump’s 3,000 political appointees would be better than Hillary Clinton’s. That argument had its flaws, not least that voters tend not to compartmentalize that way — which is why the GOP faces a potential bloodbath in the 2018 midterms.

But there’s merit to it as well. To listen to Trump’s cheerleaders, the biggest obstacle to conservative victories is the party establishment, when in reality it looks more like it’s running the show.

 

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