Trump's Influence: It's Complicated

It's hard to tell if Republicans are falling in line, since we don't know what he really believes in.

My way.

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

As the U.S. awaits a new leader who has demonstrated some authoritarian tendencies ("I alone can fix it"), let's remember how easily confused we can be about presidential dominance of the political system. 

We see presidents as running the show. We call 2001-2008 the George W. Bush era and 2009-2016 the Barack Obama years; no one calls, say, 2007-2010 the Nancy Pelosi era followed by a John Boehner period.  

We credit or blame presidents for practically everything that happened while they were in office, whether it had much to do with them or not. Oh, we might fight about whether Bush or Bill Clinton should take the blame for the 2001 recession -- but no one thinks to call it the Trent Lott or Dennis Hastert recession, and few would think of calling it the Alan Greenspan recession.

Even when presidents are strongly involved, we often mistakenly assume they are getting their way when the opposite might be happening. Take, for example, the question of whether Republicans are standing up to Donald Trump.

The general sense right now is that Republicans are fully complying with what the president-elect wants. The Washington Post's Philip Rucker, writing about Mitt Romney's dinner with Trump, concluded: "Trump has officially and almost completely cowed the elements of the Republican Party that had shunned the real estate tycoon and reality-television star during the turbulent campaign."

But reality may be a lot more complicated.

Matt Glassman reminded us (on Twitter) that the way senators normally influence Cabinet choices isn't through showdown votes on the Senate floor. It's by letting the administration know much earlier in the process which nominees would be difficult to confirm. If the incoming president listens and switches to a pre-approved pick, then it may look as if the Senate is acquiescing to whomever is chosen when in fact senators may have torpedoed several possible choices.

It's even trickier to sort out whether the president is getting his way on policy. With Trump's vague and contradictory statements on practically everything, it's nearly impossible to know if his preferences are being honored or not. 

Take Trump's position on Wall Street regulation. On the one hand, he campaigned against "the swamp," which seemed to include excessive Wall Street influence; on the other hand, he campaigned against Dodd-Frank and against government regulation in general. So does his naming of people with finance-industry ties to his government mean he is in fact getting his way? Or are traditional Republican interests defeating Trump's preferences? From the outside, it's just about impossible to know.

And as the administration staffs up, it doesn't get any easier. Trump campaigned against cuts in Medicare, in contrast to the calls by Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans to upend traditional Medicare. So do we interpret Trump's choice of House Budget Chair Tom Price for secretary of Health and Human Services as evidence of Trump's strength -- or Ryan's? As the National Journal's Josh Kraushaar asked, in response to Rucker's theory about Trump's dominance: "Or has the establishment coopted Trump's operation?"

Remember: Presidents, no matter who they are, do not make a habit of broadcasting when they've lost a fight. Most of the fights presidents lose (and there are a lot of them) are below the surface, and they often end with triumphant Rose Garden ceremonies anyway. And plenty of hard-nosed Washington players have been deferential to presidents in public, or even in face-to-face private meetings, and then have gone on to undermine what they want. 

All this matters more with Trump because he is an almost total outsider with respect to the Republican Party, and because his authoritarian tendencies are so unabashed. Analysts are rightly interested in how much he's going to change the party, and everyone should be concerned about the extent to which he could try to shatter constitutional norms.  

Precisely because those are important questions, it's equally important to be careful to attribute to Trump only those things that clearly demonstrate his influence. Only when we get that right can we assess to what extent Republicans have stood up to Trump -- and whether democracy really does face threats. 

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

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