White House

Trump Desperately Needs a James Baker

Ditch the populism. He should go to a Washington insider for chief of staff.

James Baker with Reagan in 1981.

Photographer: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The most important decision Donald Trump will make in the next few days is selecting his White House chief of staff.  Though he railed against Washington insiders in his campaign, he should select a Washington insider.

Ronald Reagan was an experienced two-term governor of California before he was elected president, and he had a defined political philosophy and strong views on many issues, but in some ways he was vulnerable to many of the same things Trump was when first elected. 

While he had excellent political instincts, he also had weird knowledge gaps. Unlike Trump, he was prone to periods of passivity, where he would avoid confrontations and find ways to avoid unpleasant subjects.

His great fortune was in having James Baker as chief of staff in his first term. Baker had been involved in Texas Republican politics, had been a presidential campaign manager, and had worked in the executive branch during the Gerald Ford administration; and he had run Ford’s presidential campaign in 1976. When Baker left to be Treasury secretary after Reagan's first term, the result was chaos

It wasn't just Reagan who benefited from having a political insider as chief of staff. Bill Clinton's presidency improved substantially after Arkansas businessman Mack McLarty was removed in 1994, replaced by Leon Panetta, a former House Budget Committee chairman and director of the Office of Management and Budget.

A long and proven record in Washington and politics is, like it or not, useful, especially if that experience is in multiple parts of the government. It also is helpful to have someone who is not a close personal associate of the president. Baker was from the moderate wing of the Republican Party, but served the more conservative Reagan well.

How can Trump find his Baker? 

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who has been mentioned for the job, is not the worst possible choice. 1 But he has never worked in government at all.

 If Trump wants to do better, he could turn to Congress. Two possibilities are Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who are both senators from Tennessee. They have the experience needed. Both have been mentioned for cabinet posts, but even top cabinet positions are less important than chief of staff is to a president's success. 

Yes, this might be awkward for a candidate who ran as a populist, attacking Republicans in Congress, along with everyone else in Washington. Big deal. No one outside the Beltway cares who the White House chief of staff is, especially when things are going smoothly.

Trump made a surprisingly solid choice for vice president. He should follow that model for the rest of his administration, starting with the most important position he will fill.

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

  1. Breitbart's Steve Bannon, who is Trump's campaign CEO, is being mentioned for chief of staff. He would not be the worst choice. Newt Gingrich would be worse. Gingrich has government experience, of course, and it was famously a disaster.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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