How to Grade Trump’s 2017

It seems like grading Pres. Trump’s 2017 is a popular topic, so I thought it might be useful to think about how he’s being graded and whether the emerging conventional wisdom might be less than 100% accurate.

The general sense seems to be that Trump has exceeded conservatives’ expectations, while the GOP-led Congress has underperformed. Many of the analyses are based around the premise (stated or unstated) that Trump has performed better where the executive has more freedom of action and that his bigger losses are mostly the fault of the legislative branch.

At the outset, given how bottom-of-the-barrel many conservatives’ expectations were, it seems to me that Trump is still being treated like a toddler even by people who have generally been supportive of him.  And the condescension ironically tends to diminish his real accomplishments.

Conversely, the CW also tends to exaggerate some of those real accomplishments, at the expense of Congress.  This doesn’t mean the basic thrust of the CW is wrong so much as that it may be a wee bit distorted.

As a prime example, take Trump’s judicial nominations, esp. the nomination of now-Justice Neil Gorsuch.  In 2017, “But Gorsuch!” was the Trump supporter’s first handy retort to any criticism of the administration.

Virtually never mentioned is that Gorsuch never would have been nominated but for a unified GOP Senate GOP caucus led by the oft-maligned Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.  Had the 2016 election ended as most — including Trump — thought it would, Trump backers would have vilified McConnell for giving Pres. Hillary Clinton her instant legacy instead of accepting Pres. Obama’s lame duck pick (which would have been withdrawn the day after the election).  The once-conservative populist radio talkers would have blamed the Kentucky RINO for having joined in the Democrats’ plot against Real ‘Merica.

Instead, McConnell & Co. gambled that blocking Obama’s pick would energize turnout for Trump and Senate GOP candidates and it paid off.  Yet the crowd that likes to blame McConnell for backing the incumbent Senate candidate in Alabama and the voters’ nomination of the execrable Roy Moore never says “But Gorsuch!” in his defense.  Funny that.

Nevertheless, the populist POTUS has worked well with the elitists at the Federalist Society and he deserves his share of the credit for understanding how important this is to conservatives. (Perhaps the partisan behavior of the lower courts toward him reinforced this impulse.)

Or consider regulatory rollback, another of the top two or three achievements cited in the upbeat assessments of the Trump administration.  This should not be understated because Republicans have always been averse to regulation, but it’s a subject on which GOP opposition has approached or exceeded decades-old high-water marks in recent years.  I suspect this is due to Obama’s environmental agenda and his decision to try to rule through regulatory fiat after losing Congress in 2010, though the reason doesn’t matter so much here as the weight Republicans have been placing on the topic.

New regulations have slowed to a relative crawl in 2017, which is to the credit of Trump and his team.  But their claims are exaggerated to the extent that they rely on proposed rules that were not under active consideration.  To date, most of the major rollbacks (as opposed to proposed rollbacks working their own way through the administrative process) are regs nullified under the Congressional Review Act.   I fully credit Trump with signing these Congressional resolutions, but the president’s cheerleaders seem to have missed the large role played by Congress on this front in 2017.

There are other rollbacks of “guidance” from the Obama administration on subjects like the kangaroo courts used to decided campus sexual assault cases.  But even here, more work will need to be done.  What we have is a good start, but it’s too soon to be putting Trump ahead of Reagan on the deregulatory front (as some have suggested).

On various issues, Trump is also getting praise for punting various issues back to Congress.  One example would be a possible immigration amnesty for so-called “Dreamers” who were brought here as children.  Another example would be the imposition of sanctions on Iran on Trump’s decertification of Obama’s nuclear deal.

As a constitutionalist, I can applaud Trump for returning issues that ought to be within the purview of Congress to that branch.  As an observer of the presidency, I also note that Trump does not seem to be pushing his preferred policy positions when Congress considers these issues.  Trump would likely prefer a Dreamer amnesty but dares not say so publicly.  And neither Trump nor Congress pushed to reimpose sanctions on Iran within 60 days, thereby greatly reducing the odds that such sanctions can become law.

I have also seen Trump supporters cheer the increase in defense spending that is of course the work of Congress.  And very few Trump supporters have acknowledged that Trump’s defense budget did not even propose funding the infrastructure or training necessary to build the 350-ship Navy on which Trump campaigned.

I have further seen Trump credited with success on the tax bill and the included repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, when his primary contribution was not blowing it up (as he reportedly almost did by demanding an 18% corporate tax rate).  I would probably be more charitable here if Trump’s flacks did not insist on blaming Congress entirely for the failure of healthcare reform in 2017.  Congress deserves its share of the blame for such failures, but it also deserves its share of the credit for successes and Trump’s fans seem quite bad at this sort of accounting.

It is true that as a political matter, Trump will get the lion’s share of the credit for legislative success, because the public is used to viewing issues through the lens of the imperial presidency.  OTOH, Trump’s fans largely avoid the degree to which Trump’s 2017 is not seen as a political success, or the degree to which he is placing the GOP Congress in danger for 2018.

It is a tribute to tribalism that so many will reject the trends emerging from public opinion polling and election results suggesting that a man who sold himself as a master of deal-making and branding has proven almost completely inept in both departments.  They will dismiss as aesthetics the concerns that most Americans have over Trump’s poor performance as head of state (as opposed to head of government).  They will dismiss polling because it’s easier to be ignorant about probability than face a hostile political environment.

And if the GOP loses control of Congress, they will entirely blame Congress, not Trump… and certainly not themselves for failing to make the preparations that might have helped mitigate the damage.  Such is the danger of a conventional wisdom that underestimates how many of Trump’s successes were due in whole or part to those awful jerks in Congress.

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