Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
2016 Elections

Trump's Choice: Conservatism or Trumpism

The new president can adopt familiar Republican policies or strike out on his own.

Donald Trump has a choice. He can work with the Republican Party that he crushed last spring to craft a familiar conservative agenda. Or he can remake the party in his own mold.

An important early test will come with decisions about the economy. On this he could quickly strike a far-reaching budget deal with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who gushed over Trump Wednesday morning after maintaining a frosty distance during the campaign.

With control of both houses of Congress, Republicans can pass most of the massive tax cut Trump has proposed, coupling it with measures to de-fund the Affordable Care Act and turn programs for poor people, like Medicaid and food stamps, into block grants to states with fewer benefits.

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman and leading political strategist, predicted that Trump will find it in his interest to let conservatives craft this agenda.

"On the budget and taxes, Trump will likely be more led than lead," Davis said. If Davis is right, that means that the candidate who said there’d be no cuts in entitlement programs would yield to conservatives eager to reduce the cost of Social Security through measures like raising the retirement age.

On immigration, trade and national security, though, Trump may give less deference to traditional Republican ideas.

His voters expect him to follow through on campaign promises to deport millions of undocumented workers and to build a wall along the Mexican border, so he’ll probably take steps in those directions. He's unlikely to achieve what he promised -- deporting 11 million people would cost billions and devastate the economy, and Mexico never will pay for the wall -- but he'll make a start and please his most ardent supporters.

On trade, he has vowed to declare China a currency manipulator. That would be a symbolic move, but if he keeps his commitment to slap huge tariffs on Chinese imports it could have cataclysmic global effects. Presidents have considerable flexibility to impose tariffs, as they do to enact immigration policy. A ban on Muslims entering the U.S., which Trump has advanced, could be done administratively.

Trump could also abolish financial and environmental regulations, including parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law enacted in response to the financial crisis and which he attacked on the stump. One of the few checks on this power will be the courts, but he will be able to name hundreds of federal judges, probably including a new Supreme Court justice.

Many Republican national security experts worry about the volatile and egotistical Trump, who has no experience in foreign affairs. He’s said he would "knock the crap" out of the Islamic State jihadist group, without saying how. He speaks admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested that better relations might resolve the Syrian civil war. If so, that would probably keep the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in power, something most conservatives oppose.

The president-elect has pledged to renegotiate treaties, including the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and last year’s deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Iran deal involves seven countries, so Trump couldn’t abrogate it unilaterally. Undermining it could provoke the Iranians to restart its nuclear programs unless other countries took the unlikely course of reimposing economic sanctions.

Beyond the substance of governing lies a question of tone. Will Trump try to govern in the conciliatory manner of his victory speech Tuesday night, or as the harshly divisive candidate who lashed out at perceived foes ranging from presidential primary opponents to a former Miss Universe to the Muslim parents of a dead U.S. soldier?

Trump enters his Washington years with a lifetime habit of putting himself above anything else, including country, and using almost any measure to strike back at those he regards as enemies. This trait is likely to be encouraged by most of the people he listened to in his campaign.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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