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'Wag the Dog' for the Age of Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump will come into office knowing little about government policies and probably caring less about most of them. But he's going to want to stage an impressive opening number or two, to let everyone know who's the star of this show. The combination of uninformed and uninterested, but still ambitious and aggressive -- does that sound like potential trouble?   

If so, here's a different question. How can we insure that the new president feels he's getting his way often enough to keep him satisfied without creating disaster on the actual policies? 

Answer: Think "Wag the Dog." In this version, people inside and outside of his administration will persuade him to fight and win a few harmless battles. The Tweeter-in-Chief can say and believe he's taking decisive action. And normal Republicans and Democrats can get on with hashing out the normal stuff of politics.

Suggestion One: The president wins the war on crime! 

Solution: As president-elect, Trump is still saying the murder rate is "highest in 45 years," a fictional claim he made in the campaign as well. Despite a jump in 2015, the murder rate is close to historical lows. So all he has to do is start using real statistics instead of phony ones to claim credit for solving this one. 

The formula can be repeated for other mistaken claims he made during the campaign about how terrible America is.

Suggestion Two: Repeal a fictional law! 

Solution: The president can help fulfill his "drain the swamp" pledge if he can claim a full defeat for everyone in Congress, including the Republican leadership. A harmless way to do this is to make up a law he can persuade Congress to "repeal."

There's even a phony law that has already been invented, the Public Affairs Act of 1975, a title dreamed up by academics to study how public opinion works. It turns out that many people will readily express opinions on non-existent laws, and will support or oppose them in response to partisan cues.

If congressional leaders deny the need to repeal the (fictional) law, perhaps Trump can get them to take action anyway, since it would placate the angry constituents who are calling the legislators' offices and demanding that the "law" be declared null and void. Done. Trump can go on a victory tour, and leave the battles over real policies to the people who are serious about the policies.

Many voters don't know how law-making works in the U.S. in the first place, and others may not care much about the truth so much as they care about visibly sticking it to the do-nothing bureaucrats in Washington.

Suggestion Three: Invade something!

The president-elect was the "bomb the hell out of them" candidate. How can he do this without involving a lot of innocent people or harming the interests of the U.S., let alone pick the wrong place (the South China Sea?) and risk global war? 

Solution: Find someplace out of the way, maybe an uninhabited island somewhere in the South Pacific -- closer to Hawaii than to China and Japan. Announce that Islamic League is about to set up a base there, and then bomb away and even stage a beach landing, with patriotic flag-raising pictures. 

Yes, I'm joking (well, mostly). But these "solutions" show some serious truths about how government works. 

Congress, career civil servants, interest groups and parties manipulate all presidents. The only question is how much, and how successful presidents are in fighting back.

Even the most knowledgeable presidents have very limited expertise, given the vast number of subjects they deal with -- everything from space travel to Medicare reimbursement rates to aircraft carriers to national parks to constitutional law to regulation of complex financial products to disputes among Kurdish factions in Iraq. And the civil servants and members of Congress and lobbyists that presidents deal with are often masters of detail on whatever specific issue is under consideration.

Presidents win a lot of these fights (or at least play to a draw) because they have strong political skills. They are good at figuring out what others want, and at knowing the incentives and motivations of those they must interact with. Trump has to date not demonstrated such skills, although, to be fair, he's only beginning to be tested.

Thus far, he has shown a weakness for being easily distracted, and of seeking quick, surface-level results -- ones that career bureaucrats or House subcommittee chairs can reverse later, once the president's attention has moved on to something else. 

Granted, a lot of people, even Republicans, would be reluctant to give Trump such a long leash to achieve phony victories. But if they fear he's dangerous as president, then it would be better to keep him happy with some minor, temporary bump-ups in public opinion than it is to let him intervene in areas where he could do real damage. 

Of course, liberals believe that normal Republicans do plenty of damage to the nation on their own, Trump or no Trump. But at least those normal Republicans may respond to normal incentives, and moderate their positions if their ideal policies turn out to be unpopular.

Think about it. Is a distracted president such a bad thing after all?

  1. Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt in his classic study "Presidential Power" concluded that the best way for presidents to compete is to absorb as much information as possible. 

  2. This is what a normal political party would do. Unfortunately, it's not clear the Republican Party is capable of that right now. But this is a different topic.

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:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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