Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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Further Down Mike Flynn’s Rabbit Hole

Believe me, I do not intend to get in the habit of writing on a Friday night for a Saturday posting.  However, given the traffic and feedback I got about “Another Flynn Conspiracy Theory,” it’s worth going a bit further down this rabbit hole in a timely manner.

As the kids say on Twitter: Are you ready for some game theory?

Yesterday’s posting was a piece of media criticism examining the evidence — or lack thereof — in a story asserting that fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn was ousted as the result of a campaign waged by fmr Obama adviser Ben Rhodes and a small task force of Obama alumni for the purpose of stopping Flynn from revealing secret aspects of Obama’s Iran deal.

That story is generally lacking in evidence and when acting as a media critic, I judge what’s on the page or screen.  And when commenting on the general reaction to the piece on the right, my general presumption is that readers also should judge what’s on the page or screen.

Nevertheless, I repeatedly stressed that Adam Kredo is a thorough reporter and that if he could have produced more evidence to support this conspiracy theory, he would have done so.  I also refused to dismiss the possibility that the attacks on Flynn were more organized than the groupthink of progressives inside and outside the bureaucracy attacking a weak link in the Trump administration.

The reason I did both things is because — when not wearing a media critic hat — I considered the possibility that Kredo knows or has reason to believe more than what he wrote in his story.

I have no evidence to support that speculation.  Zero, zip, nil, nada.  I have never had any kind of contact with Kredo.  I have had no contact with anyone at the Washington Free Beacon about this story.  That’s why my speculation wasn’t in yesterday’s posting.

But I did have that thought, which influenced the writing.

I had the same sort of speculation after reading Friday’s piece by Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard.  I have had contact with Hemingway, though I don’t know whether he knows this.  But I have had no contact with him or anyone affiliated with him about the story.

Hemingway writes that “in recent days there have been rumblings that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and architect of the infamous Iran Deal echo chamber; Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor; and other Obama foreign policy officials have been active organizing and leaking against Trump.”  Hemingway links Kredo’s story, but notes its anonymous sourcing and Rhodes calling the theory bizarre.

Nevertheless, Hemingway argues that the consistent appearance of the silly suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act as a “tell” that there was some sort of campaign being waged against Flynn.  He concludes that “it’s worth trying to get a handle on how active and organized the Obama opposition to Trump is,” a sentiment with which I entirely agree.

I am not quite as sold on the idea that the Logan Act nonsense is a “tell.”  It could be.  OTOH, Dems accused then-candidate Trump of violating the Logan Act for suggesting that Russia should find the 30,000 emails deleted from the private server Hillary Clinton used to mishandle classified information.

The Left also accused Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Senate Republicans of violating the Logan Act for publishing a letter to Iran’s leaders that undercut Pres. Obama’s efforts to negotiate the Iran deal (at least this example relates to the Iran deal).  Before that, MoveOn had a petition drive suggesting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner violated the Logan Act by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress.

Plus, I’m old enough to remember when it was GOPers and conservatives who tended to bring up the Logan Act.  In 2007, Republicans claimed then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi violated the Logan Act (even if it shouldn’t have been prosecuted) by meeting with Syrian Pres. Assad.  Fmr. Pres. Jimmy Carter has been accused of violating the Logan Act over the years for his meddling in foreign policy well after his presidency ended.

In 1984, Newt Gingrich accused ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, of violating the Logan Act for offering political advice to Daniel Ortega, leader of the Communist junta that ruled Nicaragua.  James Kirchick brought up the Logan Act not only with respect to Carter, but also regarding Sen. Ted Kennedy’s attempt to get the Soviets to meddle in the 1983 election.

Pres. Ronald Reagan suggested then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson had violated the Act during a mission to Cuba (while saying he would not seek a prosecution).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Logan Act is just one of those political talking points that people will invoke, given enough aggravation.  So maybe it’s not a “tell” in this case.  But maybe it is.

In either event, Hemingway’s mention of “rumblings” will ring true to anyone who has worked in DC or knows those who have.  Leaking and gossiping are fairly rampant in the Beltway.

And Hemingway mentions Vietor, who is not featured in Kredo’s story, which suggests those rumblings are not just the product of Kredo’s story.  Again, it’s not evidence.  But I’m not doing evidence right now.

People reading Hemingway might speculate that the rumblings extend beyond the Friends of Flynn that Kredo quoted.  Or that Hemingway knows — or has reason to believe he knows — more than he feels comfortable reporting.

But that leaves us with the question Hemingway raises, i.e., how do people get a handle on whether the Flynn/Rhodes/Iran theory is true?

I have a suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected.  If the theory is that Obama alumni orchestrated press leaks against Mike Flynn (or is campaigning against anyone else in the Trump admin), don’t ask anonymous Trump allies.  Instead, ask journalists.

Granted, most of the leak recipients are probably progressives who aren’t going to say a thing.  But the premise of the speculation that writers like Kredo and Hemingway know more than they can report is that anti-Flynn pitches were made to them or others like them.

Of course, it’s further possible that conservative journalists wouldn’t want to burn their lefty sources for both ethical and practical reasons, even by anonymously ratting out those sources to a fellow conservative journalist.  But keep in mind that those who would squeal loudest about this tactic are people who have no problem at all with government officials illegally leaking classified information for political gain.

If these politically-motivated leaks are the threat to the Republic many — including many conservative writers — seem to believe they are, people may want to wrestle with the ethical questions as I do.  The wrestling should not stop there either.

After all, once you take seriously the possibility that conservative journalists know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting, you cannot dismiss the possibility that the Big Media journalists and the sources feeding them anti-Flynn material know (or have good reason to believe they know) more than they are reporting.

This leads us back to the unresolved questions surrounding Flynn’s firing.  Given the general tough-on-Iran line up of the Trump administration, are we willing to believe that Obama alumni went after Flynn on this big a scale out of pure personal pique?  If Pres. Trump dismisses the anti-Flynn leak stories as “fake news,” then why did he ask for Flynn to resign?  Why was Flynn cashiered for misleading VP Mike Pence if the FBI concluded Flynn was truthful in claiming it was unintentional?  And so on.

This is the problem: When you start going down a rabbit hole, you generally don’t know how deep it will go.

Update: If you’re into speculation about this topic, per my warning about what the Deep State or Big Media might know that we don’t, read HotAir’s Allahpundit on FBI Director Comey’s long and mysterious meeting with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Amid tumult at the White House, the Washington Examiner’s April Ponnuru notes: “If this is the honeymoon, prospects for the marriage between President Trump and congressional Republicans are bleak.  We’re not even a month in and many Republicans are looking nervously for the nearest exit.”  For that matter, it wasn’t much of a honeymoon from the outset.

The reality is probably less dramatic.  Oddly, the best recent historical precedents for the Trump/GOP relationship Administration may come from the Democrats.

One possibility for the GOP can be called The Bill Clinton scenario.  Bill ran for President as a heterodox, more centrist figure in his party.  He won despite the way he treated women.  Nicknamed “Slick Willie” as far back as 1980, his relationship with the truth was as casual as his relationship with the opposite sex.  He lied about things large and small; parsing his lawyerly evasions became a cottage industry for his critics.

Bill Clinton, his Administration, and his associates became mired in a swamp of scandals of varying import.  He was impeached (though not convicted) and disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas and in front of the Supreme Court over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Despite the scandals, triangulations and losing control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years (indeed, perhaps in part because of the latter), Democrats ultimately stood by their man like Tammy Wynette.

Democrats debated whether Clinton’s success was due to his more centrist positions on welfare and crime or his support for the party’s legacy achievements.  It was probably some of both.  Equally important or more so, the Information Revolution unleashed an economic boom.  Plus, Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Bill Clinton, aside from changing the norms for a President in ways that paved the way for Trump, also provides a model by which Trump might succeed in keeping most Republicans and conservatives sufficiently onboard with his presidency.  If Trump can balance traditional GOP policy priorities with some key Trumpian proposals — and continue to drive all the right enemies crazy — he can probably maintain a successful political operation, even if he runs into scandals.

Of course, for the Clinton scenario to work, the economic and foreign policy fundamentals will have to also go well for Trump – or appear to, at a minimum.

A worse-case scenario might be called the Jimmy Carter scenario.  Here was an earlier heterodox figure in the modern Democratic Party.  Far more centrist than the Dems’ 1972 nominee, Sen. George McGovern, he also won in part because he lacked the sort of moral flaws so evident in Richard Nixon.

Yet the Carter Administration failed in part because he did not work or play well with a Congress of his own party.  The obvious collapse of old school Keynesian economics and Carter’s foreign policy humiliations were almost certainly bigger factors, but the lack of support for Carter in Congress and the Democratic Party more broadly – culminating in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge – was highly damaging to his prospects for reelection.

Wherever Trump and the GOP wind up on this spectrum, note that Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

The heterodox Trump administration — or some of it — seems interested in trying to remake the GOP into a more nationalist or populist party.  But trying to change your spouse after the wedding ceremony seems….tricky, at best.  Of course, that also might be instructive to anyone in the GOP still hoping that Trump is going to make that long-rumored pivot someday.

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