How Hard Right Will Trump Be?

I’m trying to decide if David Weigel is correct to frame the politics we are about to see unfold in the following way:

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law.

The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.

Weigel points out that Grover Norquist stated in 2012 that his ideal president will not do much beyond demonstrating that he has “enough working digits to handle a pen” and “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.”

Is this really going to be how Trump operates? Passively? Down-the-line as a movement conservative?

I’m almost convinced of it, and I’ll tell you why. He seems so disinclined to get down in the weeds that he strikes me as almost lazy. And it’s odd to feel this way because I can say a lot of very negative things about Donald Trump but it seems like he works pretty hard. He gets up early, puts in long hours, does a lot of travel, takes a lot of meetings, and always has a lot of oars in the water. I wouldn’t ordinarily consider work ethic to be one of his faults.

I’ve seen comments from people who have worked with him that suggest he has a very limited attention span and doesn’t like to micromanage. I’ve also seen him obsessing about carpets and draperies and other aspects of his building projects that seem to suggest that he’s very detail-oriented.

My sense is that he’s motivated only by what has some fascination for him, and in most cases the details of things bore him to tears. Still, now that he’s going to be the president, I expect him to want to leave his own stamp rather than to just sign whatever Grover Norquist puts on his desk. And, yet, maybe that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Maybe Trump will be mostly disengaged from the legislative process, and Paul Ryan’s priorities will take precedence over his own.

Back when Trump’s campaign was just theoretical, it seemed like he might be able to fashion a new kind of political party that was a hybrid between Democrats and Republicans. He was willing to challenge the Republicans on many things, including trade policy, entitlements, deficit spending for infrastructure, the good work of Planned Parenthood. He even had a record of supporting universal health care.

He succeeded in crafting a hybrid base of supporters, as many of his voters have been Rust Belt Democrats their whole lives. But his agenda doesn’t seem to contemplate them except to the limited degree that they have sympathized with Republicans all along. So, perhaps Trump Democrats will be generally okay with the Defund Planned Parenthood Act and allowing “concealed weapons to be carried across state lines,” but they’re probably not going to like losing subsidies to buy health insurance or seeing their entitlements slashed.

One of Weigel’s main themes is that the Republicans have an advantage that President Obama did not enjoy at the beginning of his presidency because they’ve made no pretense of working in a bipartisan manner so they shouldn’t expect much penalty for acting in a hyper-partisan way. And that makes some sense.

But people who have been Democrats in the past were Democrats for concrete reasons, and they won’t like much of what they see from a Movement Conservative revolution in Congress. They certainly won’t be convinced that Trump is universally on their side when they discover that they’ve really ratified Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian dystopia rather than a genuine third-way rebuke of partisan politics as usual.

Perhaps for this reason, and also because many Trump’s policies violate either conservative orthodoxy or cannot be paid for, there should develop a desire and probably a necessity for Trump to try to work with the Democrats. In the beginning, when Trump was starting out, I thought Trump would be naturally inclined to move in that direction. But he doesn’t seem inclined that way at all. So, if it happens, it will happen only because he sees it as the only way to rescue a failing and deeply unpopular presidency.

I am going to keep my eye on two things early on. The first is how the administration and Congress deal with the projections they make on the budgetary impact of legislation. If they can agree to ignore reality and that all their spending and lost revenue will paid for by 10% economic growth, then they might be able to operate without any help from the Democrats. But if conservative budget hawks insist that Trump’s policies be paid for (or nearly so), then there are going to be problems. That’s why the second thing I want to see is how they deal with Trump’s infrastructure bill.

He’s says he wants to spend $1 trillion, and he’s often complained about how poorly our airports compare to what he sees in Beijing or Dubai. But the way he wants to do this has no appeal to Democrats, as it amounts to nothing but a giant tax break to builders who are going build with or without the handout.

One thing to look for is whether the proposal solely relies on private financing, which would greatly diminish the chances for a bipartisan bill. Democrats have called for any infrastructure package to also include direct federal spending.

Conservative support, meanwhile, will hinge on how the plan is paid for. Trump has proposed offering tax credits to private investors, which he claims would pay for themselves thanks to new revenues brought in from job wages and contractor profits.

But if the proposal is not actually revenue-neutral and Trump does not come up with a palatable funding offset, then the plan will likely be dead on arrival in Congress.

For Trump’s bill to pass, dynamic scoring is going to have to do a lot of work, and it’s going to have to be agreed on by Republicans in both Congress and the White House.

If they agree to fudge the numbers, they’ll destroy the integrity (and/or the authority) of the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. And it might not fly with a lot of backbench conservatives. If they get away with this, then the Tea Party and deficit hawkery will be effectively mothballed until a Democratic president is elected again and wants to spend some money.

But, if it fails, Trump will need to bypass the deficit hawks in the Republican Party and make huge concessions to Democrats to get a big infrastructure bill passed.

How this plays out will tell us a lot about whether Trump can be effective not just in passing the conservatives’ longstanding agenda but in creating his own unique legacy.

Given the makeup of his support, he ought to be pursuing an eclectic grab bag of policies, some from the Democratic side of the aisle. It’s hard to see how he can solidify his idiosyncratic base by running a severely right-wing administration.

And if really does attempt it, it will make it all the more important for him to appeal to (white) identity and nationalism as compensatory gestures.

Ironically, then, Democrats working with Trump could lessen the virulence of his racist appeals by making them less politically vital to his reelection.

That’s not much of a choice for Democrats, either morally or strategically. But, if Weigel is correct, they may not even have the opportunity to make that choice.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.