What a Conservative Sees From Inside Trump's Washington
The conservative voters who elected Donald Trump seem to feel especially betrayed when those who document his failures and violations are fellow conservatives. Like me.
"Trump Derangement Syndrome," they say: another libertarian sucked in by DC cocktail circuit, enjoying her cozy establishment perch.
Right-leaning writers are hearing a lot of such accusations these days, even those who never go to cocktail parties, and whose opposition to Trump has cost them readers and opportunities. And yet it’s easy to see where these accusations come from: Washington does tend to blunt the sharper ideological edges of conservatives and libertarians who spend much time here. That doesn’t necessarily happen because their values crumble toward the establishment consensus. It happens because their perspective changes. Certain things about Washington are visible only up close.
I’m not saying that Inside the Beltway is smart and the rest of the country is dumb; distance offers perspective. But that perspective comes at the expense of detail, and often those details change the picture considerably. Outsiders know things that insiders don’t, such as what’s happening in the world beyond 495. But the insiders know some things too, and those things also matter.
Consider the endless debates over last week’s series of leaks. Washington conservatives read the news stories too. But for connected conservatives in DC, the media isn’t the only source of information about this administration. I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.
They can also compare what they’re hearing to what they heard, both on and off the record, during the last Republican administration. Even in Bush’s final days, when the financial crisis was in full swing and his approval ratings hovered around 25 percent, there was nothing like this level of dysfunction inside the White House, this frenzy of backbiting leakage.
So even though they agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration’s dysfunction aren’t all media hype. They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn’t. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve -- from the top on down -- and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff. Which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.
From watching the battles of the past, Washington conservatives know that the republic can survive bad domestic policy (at least of the sort that can actually make it through the American political and judicial processes), but that foreign policy missteps are harder to recover from, and easier for a president to make on his own. They know too, of course, that consultation and planning didn’t keep Bush and Obama from making plenty of mistakes, bad ones. It’s just that they know the mistakes are likely to be even more frequent, and more grievous, if the president has not put in the work to familiarize himself with complicated matters, and will not defer to the people who have.
And here’s the final thing that they know: that if you want to do anything big in Washington, there’s a lot of smaller stuff that has to happen first. You don’t write code or build a building without a lot of stuff that probably seems expensive and unnecessary to the customers, and our product requires similarly careful planning and management.
Some of the hoops that a president’s staff must jump through are legally required; some of them are simply necessary to make sure that your bill doesn’t explode on the steps of the Capitol, or die a gruesome public death in the Supreme Court. They include: appointing policy staff; deciding on policy goals, strategy and tactics; keeping the staff from descending into the infighting that inevitably besets any large organization; providing regular oversight of evolving policies to make sure they adhere to the president’s goals; setting up channels and a process to get input from Congress and legal advisers; writing a very detailed plan that provides guidance to staff and legislators, and reassurance to the public; and having your political and communications strategy lined up long before you roll out that plan. Insiders know that this process looks cumbrous and unnecessary to outsiders; they also know that getting majorities in Congress, and legislation that will survive a court challenge, is a Herculean task that cannot be completed without many thousands of people devoting many thousands of hours to these labors.
What conservatives in Washington also know is that the Trump administration hasn’t even completed the first step. And that political capital, vital to pushing a policy forward against the inevitably fierce resistance from special interests, is a rapidly depreciating asset. Which is why they know one more thing: that unless something changes, Trump poses no threat to the establishment, other than the same risk that they’d face from any ordinary Republican president -- that the unpopularity of the man in the Oval Office will dribble downticket, and cost them seats in the next election
The hated “establishment” is firmly in charge of such policy process as exists in the Trump era, with Congress basically going ahead to make its own health-care bill because the White House has proven incapable of providing meaningful input. Non-policy accomplishments, such as the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, are no more than his supporters would have gotten from any of the Republican candidates they derided as “RINOs.” On some issues, such as religious liberty, he has probably been worse for key portions of his base than any other Republican contender would have been.
The one area where Trump might actually override the establishment -- immigration -- has so far delivered only changes that can be easily reversed by the next president. (Who is likely to be a Democrat, in 2020, unless Trump's approval ratings turn around.) Any sort of lasting change will require legislation. And right now, the establishment owns the legislative process.
So what conservatives here know is that the freakout in Washington, which looks from afar like a battle between Trump and “the establishment,” is actually one side screaming in amazement as the other side turn their weapons on each other.
Of course, that’s not the only reason that Washington conservatives are screaming. They fear that Trump’s incompetence may torpedo the policies where they and the outsiders are in agreement: a better tax code, a fix for Obamacare’s many problems. They are desperately worried that his sinking approval ratings will hand Democrats at least one chamber of Congress, and the White House in 2020, where they will resume all the things both camps of conservatism hated about the Obama administration. And they are sincerely and deeply concerned that through bumbling or bad character, he will do considerable damage to things more important than party or ideology.
Are conservatives in Washington missing something through their myopia? Undoubtedly; that’s how they missed the rise of Trump, after all. But the folks outside of Washington are missing things too. The two sides can surely find some better way to share information than shouting past each other.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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