Could Donald Trump Do Anything to Win the NeverTrumpers?

That’s the title of Roger Kimball‘s entry into the tedious genre of “Let’s complain about a handful of pundits by pure coincidence when the the Trump administration has a bad week or two.”  Kimball’s piece, however, does at least one salutary thing that most of the genre does not.

Kimball provided his criteria for judging the success or failure of Pres. Trump.  Moreover, he lists them as questions in the present tense, which at least concedes that the answers are not settled.  I will work through my answers, which may not match yours, but in a way I hope would be useful to Trump supporters and skeptics alike.

Judicial appointments. Is he keeping his promise to nominate judges and justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia?

The question is phrased around the issue of quality and on that basis I would say he is.  But I would also consider the issue of quantity, on which there are two perspectives.  Liberal Ron Klain finds Trump is making an alarming number of nominations compared to past presidents.  Trump-friendly GOP radio talker Hugh Hewitt finds the pace alarmingly slow compared to the number of vacancies.  Given that this item tops Kimball’s list and was one of Hewitt’s main selling points for Trump during the campaign, I would suggest no one on the Right will want to look back on Trump’s tenure and find scores of judgeships unfilled.

Regulation. Is he keeping his promise to roll back burdensome and counterproductive regulation?

In general, yes. There are exceptions, e.g., the endangerment finding — that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, pose a threat to human health and must be regulated under the Clean Air Act — will likely stand, setting a bad precedent and likely trading one set of future legal battles for another.  And given the administration’s early rhetoric about dismantling the administrative state, one might ask why Trump has been MIA during the fight over the REINS Act.  Nevertheless, under Kimball’s criteria, the administration may be doing best on this front.

Immigration. Is he keeping his promise to get a handle on illegal immigration?

Border crossings are down, which may be a function of migrants being deterred by the new climate of the Trump administration.  Arrests are up, but deportations are down, which means the systemic backlog is increasing.  The DoJ wants to add 125 immigration judges over the next two years, but the number of pending cases already exceeds 610,000.

Trump has ended Pres. Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program (already enjoined by the federal courts), but has not stopped the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for so-called “Dreamers” who arrived in the U.S. as children.  Should 10 states be forced to sue Trump over one of his signature issues?

Will Trump shut down the government to secure substantial funding for The Wall?  We’ll see.  Is he going to exert himself to support the RAISE Act?  We’ll see.

The military. Is he keeping his promise to upgrade the U.S. military and give it greater flexibility in responding to threats to our national security?

In general, no.  Trump has requested a 3% increase over Obama’s budget, far less than what hawks want.  Moreover, Trump has not budgeted for the increases in infrastructure (e.g., shipyards) and training of personnel that would be necessary to build a 350-ship Navy anytime soon.

Energy. Is he reversing the Obama administration’s various strictures on America’s ability to harvest its own energy resources?

In general, yes, even if much of this was low-hanging fruit and among the easiest of Kimball’s criteria to fulfill.  That said, the Gary Cohn who said coal “doesn’t even make that much sense anymore as a feedstock” is probably more correct than the Gary Cohn who suddenly thinks coal will be competitive going forward.  Automation is also going to account for job losses in mining.  So I might give Trump higher marks on this than some of the future ex-coal miners who voted for him.

(BTW, Trump has a similar but arguably worse problem regarding trade, which doesn’t make Kimball’s list, despite being Trump’s longest-held position and a signature 2016 position.  Trump kept his promise to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but if ends up costing him votes in the rural Midwest, how should I score that? )

Jobs. Is he working to create an environment that is job-friendly for American workers?

So far, job growth in the first six months of the Trump era are about the same as job growth during Pres. Obama’s last six months in office.  And future job growth will depend on the business cycle and factors outside Trump.

Trump can help create a healthier environment mainly by reducing regulation and reforming taxes, so this seems like a largely redundant category.  BTW, insofar as jobs and the economy are usually the most important issue to voters (and were a big part of Trump’s MAGA theme), it seems odd, or possibly telling, that this is so far down on Kimball’s list.

Obamacare. Is he working to repeal and replace Obamacare?

He’s mentioning it on occasion…now, after the Senate bill failed.  The White House offered little to no guidance to Congress on how to approach the issue.  He didn’t work to sell either the House or Senate bill (neither of which really repealed and replaced Obamacare in the opinion of many) to the public.  His administration’s ham-fisted attempts to squeeze votes out of people was mostly counter-productive.  Celebrating passage of the House bill then calling it too “mean” is emblematic of the way Trump sows distrust among people who should be his allies. (None of the above is to exculpate Congress, but Kimball asks about Trump’s effort or lack thereof.)

Taxes. Is he working to cut taxes?

Not too much yet.  I hope he would learn from the Obamacare repeal debacle, but so far he’s made some of the same mistakes, starting with the administration’s early sowing of confusion over whether they would accept a border adjustment tax (which now seems off the table and thus likely to reduce the scale of the legislation).  And now his late efforts on Obamacare repeal will drain attention away from taxes.

Making American Great Again. This is more amorphous but not therefore indiscernible. What has Trump done about the virus of political correctness and the ideology of identity politics? What’s the mood of the country?

Again, it’s a little odd that Kimball makes this his final criterion, given how much of Trump’s political appeal is wrapped up in his lack of political correctness.  I would have thought the author of Tenured Radicals would have taken the opportunity to tout Trump’s moves to curb the abuse of Title IX on college campuses and to investigate a complaint that a university (reportedly Harvard) has discriminated against Asian-Americans in its affirmative action program.

OTOH, looking at the mood of the country, we see 60% still think our country is on the wrong track.  Economic confidence, which shot up when Trump was inaugurated, is headed back to the water line.  Trump’s job approval numbers are at a low, and declining even among his base.

In sum, Trump’s record on these issues to date is mixed, as I would expect six months into an administration.  But given the weight voters currently put on the economy and healthcare as issues, the lack of progress by Trump (and Congress, but Trump must accept his share of blame) on these issues is troubling and likely accounts for a significant part of that “wrong track” number remaining so high.

Kimball concedes there are other criteria he doesn’t mention, which is quite an understatement.  The omission of trade, mentioned above, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Kimball’s list essentially ignores foreign policy (including terrorism, where Trump can at least point to progress against ISIS in Iraq, if not Syria).  Kimball claims to be baffled why Max Boot is not on the Trump Train; perhaps he might start here.  After all, it’s just one of the core Constitutional powers/duties of the executive.

I could double the length of this posting to address the issues with Trump’s foreign policy (positive and negative), but I will merely note that one does not have to be a disappointed neoconservative to wonder whether Trump has a foreign policy and to be dismayed at the disconnect between Trump’s own comments and tweets and the policies being pursued by his cabinet.

Kimball’s list also ignores fiscal conservatism, though in fairness so does Trump, who is quite content to ignore the ticking time bomb of our unfunded liabilities and to submit a laughable “skinny” budget.  Granted, entitlement reform isn’t popular, but neither were the GOP healthcare bills Trump nominally supported.

If you consider that the modern conservative movement was built around the fusion of economic, social, and foreign policy/defense conservatives, it might occur to Trump supporters that the first six months gives economic and foreign policy/defense conservatives plenty of room for skepticism (excepting deregulation), though Trump could improve on some major issues.  Indeed, if we include libertarians in the economic conservative bloc, you could add the Trump DoJ’s moves against marijuana and in favor of civil asset forfeiture as examples of how the administration is pursuing cultural conservatism at the expense of every other faction on the Right.

Perhaps I have given the skeptics some reasons to view Trump’s record more favorably, and his supporters some perspective on the skepticism.  I tend to doubt the latter.  Writers like Stephen Hayes can present detailed accountings of likes and dislikes regarding Trump’s record and agenda; the Kimballs and Dennis Pragers will continue to play dumb about them, because its far easier to ignore criticism and blame others for Trump’s bad coalition management.

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