Friday, April 28, 2017

The Importance of Trump's First Hundred Days

The historically productive first weeks of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency left American politics with a tradition of news media-led retrospection at the hundred-day mark, reached Saturday by the Trump administration. Given that no subsequent president has been able to match Roosevelt's remarkable record of immediate prolific policy accomplishment, there is a certain arbitrary—and even perhaps unfair—element to exercising collective judgment on the new chief executive only three months into a four-year term. On the other hand, the "honeymoon" at the start of an administration is generally a favorable period for the enactment of presidential initiatives, and presidents have often found that the sledding, especially on Capitol Hill, only grows more treacherous over time.

Rather than simply declaring the hundred days either a success or a failure and then moving on, it is perhaps more appropriate to take the opportunity to review what we have learned about the new president since January 20. Trump is an especially apt subject for examination in this way. He came into the office without the experience or political style of a normal national leader, and his election generated a wide range of expectations across partisan and ideological lines about what kind of president he would turn out to be.

It's safe to say at this point that Trump is not the political savant envisioned by some of his supporters, and even by members of the press corps who were impressed by his unlikely election. Despite his promises to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump has not shown the ability to resolve the nation's most pressing problems via a unique combination of negotiating savvy and tough-minded dedication. One insider account after another portrays the president as totally at sea in the White House, with top members of Trump's own staff privately conceding that he lacks an elementary grasp of either policy or congressional politics. Previous suggestions that he would assemble an all-star team of "the best people" to provide assistance and advice have similarly been discarded in favor of the installation of a skeleton crew of professional partisans and assorted personal loyalists, who seem to spend as much energy jockeying for presidential favor and trashing each other in the press as they do carrying out the tasks of governing.

At the same time, much of the criticism directed toward Trump from the left prior to Inauguration Day has also not been borne out by his performance in office. Warnings that Trump's ascendance to power signaled a potential threat to democracy itself were commonplace among left-of-center analysts during the campaign and transition period. But one regular attempt to catalog worrying signs of impending authoritarianism has come to seem self-refuting, unless such items as "13. Trump dropped his campaign promise to let Medicare negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs" and "5. Trump hosted a disastrous Easter Egg Roll" indeed contain sinister echoes of Franco and Mussolini. (Also: the Easter Egg Roll was not actually disastrous, even if Beyoncé didn't show up this year.)

The Trump presidency has been more conventionally Republican than advertised—largely abandoning the departures from traditional conservative doctrine that gave the Trump candidacy a tinge of economic populism—and has proven less effective so far in achieving major change than either supporters or (most) opponents assumed. Rather than consolidating executive power to rearrange the international order, dissuade corporate America from outsourcing jobs, or oppress and intimidate political enemies, the new president has devoted much of his attention to monitoring daily television coverage of his administration and idly complaining about its perceived unfairness. Decisions about legislative business and other substantive matters are often delegated to subordinates or avoided altogether.

When combined with a divided congressional majority—and unified minority—this adds up to an administration characterized by significant political and institutional limitations. Trump's personal defensiveness and penchant for boastful exaggeration, traits that have been adopted by members of his White House staff, project insecurity more than calm command and arise in private meetings with other political leaders as well as public communications. Despite an unusual preoccupation with his personal popularity, the new president has yet to convince a majority of citizens to approve of his job performance at any point since taking office, further reducing his influence over Congress and encouraging critical assessments from members of the news media who would otherwise defer to Trump as an authentic voice for the concerns of middle America.

Presidents, and presidencies, can and do evolve over time. It's premature to draw anything more than tenuous conclusions about the governing style and capacity of the new administration just three months into its existence. On the other hand, media observers have been hyper-sensitive to any signs of a more knowledgeable, even-tempered, or "presidential" Trump ever since he started his campaign 21 months ago, but have so far only sounded what turned out to be false alarms. Trump may indeed change his ways in the future. So far, however, there's little reason to expect the next hundred days to be much different from the first.

Finally, it's time for some personal stock-taking. Last January, I was asked by the Boston College public affairs office, along with a number of academic colleagues across several disciplines, to share brief remarks about Trump's first hundred days. Here's what I wrote:

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how the Trump administration will operate in practice. Compared to previous administrations, the incoming president’s policy priorities are not well defined and the lines of decision-making authority within the White House remain unclear. Because the new president and vice president, most senior presidential advisors (including the new White House chief of staff), and much of the cabinet all lack substantial experience in the executive branch, the early months of the Trump administration will produce an elevated risk of ineffectiveness, substantive and procedural confusion, and potentially serious errors in governing.
It is already clear from both the 2016 campaign and the post-election transition period that the new president places great importance on receiving positive press coverage, identifying and citing indicators of personal popularity, and exacting revenge against perceived enemies. These are likely to be the major day-to-day objectives of his administration – absent an immediate crisis that directs attention elsewhere – and presidential decisions about policy and personnel may well be viewed primarily through their ability to further one or more of these goals.

I'd still stand behind these words. But I am struck in retrospect by the lack of energy that Trump has devoted to using the presidential bully pulpit to mobilize popular support and pressure political opponents (of both parties), and by his limited success in finding creative and politically useful ways to attract public attention. The deficiencies so far of Trump-the-policy-maker are, to me, hardly a shock. It's Trump-the-media-tactician whose ineffectiveness is one of the most surprising developments of the first hundred days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Interview about Asymmetric Politics with Salon.com

I was recently interviewed by Paul Rosenberg of Salon.com about how the view of party differences that Matt and I propose in Asymmetric Politics applies to recent political events, including the rise of Donald Trump, the failure of the Republicans' health care reform plan last month, and the challenges facing the Democrats. You can find an edited version of our conversation here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Kansas Election and the Stability of American Electoral Politics

American politics over the last 25 years or so seems as if it's a roller coaster of sudden and unpredictable plot twists, each more improbable than the last: the ascension of a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in four decades; the impeachment of a sitting president; a national election decided by the idiosyncratic design of punch-card ballots in a single Florida county; a coordinated series of major terrorist attacks on American soil; two long and unresolved wars; a catastrophic economic crisis; the election of the first black president in history—followed immediately by the election of Donald Trump to the same office. The fortunes of the two parties have appeared to reverse with whiplash-inducing rapidity multiple times over this period, with neither side managing to establish an enduring hold over the affections of an impatient and dissatisfied electorate.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, though, and our current political climate actually exhibits considerable stability. The following regularities (I don't view them as "rules," which would imply assuming an indefinite permanent validity) have largely held across the entire period from 1994 to the present, and certainly since 2000 or so:

1. The two parties are closely matched at the national level in both presidential and congressional elections.

2. The vast majority of voters are consistently loyal to a single party in both presidential and congressional voting.

3. Most individual states and congressional districts are securely and predictably Democratic or Republican in national elections.

4. However, because of #1 above, a national "wave" in favor of a single party can easily reverse control of the presidency or either house of Congress, flipping pivotal swing states and districts from Democratic to Republican (or vice versa) and even producing scattered upsets in normally safe partisan strongholds elsewhere in the nation.

5. These "waves" commonly form as a backlash against unified control of the federal government by the party in power, which tends to simultaneously alienate swing voters and disproportionately mobilize angry members of the opposition party to show up at the polls or to run for office themselves.

6. Many citizens treat their congressional vote as a referendum on the national parties and party leaders, rather than as a choice between the personal attributes of the individual candidates on the ballot.

With these six regularities in mind, let's turn to the results of Tuesday night's special election in Kansas. This was a "deep red" congressional district—by any metric, one of the 100 most Republican seats in the country—and, as we might expect, the Republican candidate won (see #2 and #3 above). However, the margin of victory was only about 7 percentage points, even though the Republican nominee was a statewide elected official while the Democrat was a political unknown who was outspent and out-organized (see #6). The closeness of the result suggests that the electoral climate has worsened considerably for Republican candidates since last November, in large part due to the disastrous first weeks of the Trump presidency (see #5 and #6).

If we compare the Kansas results to the previous general election, they appear to represent a dramatic shift in the political order over just a few short months. But if we place them in a wider context, they seem much less surprising—if anything, somewhat predictable. Even the political professionals at the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fell prey to this ultra-short-term thinking, dismissing the electoral chances of their party's congressional nominee based on the results of the 2016 election and its immediate predecessors, and thus failing to invest the organizational and financial resources in Kansas that might have made the outcome closer still.

Should they—or we—really have been all that surprised? By every conceivable indication, the Trump presidency is poised to be a massive electoral albatross for Republican candidates from coast to coast—and there is, at this stage, little reason for the party to hope that he will rectify his governing problems in time for next year's midterm elections. Whether or not Republicans actually cede control of the House in 2018 (see #1 and #4), it is near-certain that they will lose a substantial number of seats unless a major rebound occurs in the president's perceived job performance. But let's not be shocked—a newly successful congressional Democratic Party would not be a sudden departure from the patterns of recent history. Rather, it would be yet another regular occurrence in our predictable political age.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Will Bannon Stay? Will He Go? It Actually Won't Matter Much

We have yet to reach the three-month anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration, yet a death watch has already started in Washington over the White House tenure of Trump advisor and chief strategist Stephen Bannon. This development was precipitated by a single publicly-confirmed fact—Bannon's abrupt removal from the National Security Council—but a host of on-background quotes in the press have attested to Bannon's falling star, further fueling the intrigue of the week.

Bannon, a former Hollywood producer who migrated to the Trump campaign last August from the bare-fanged conservative website Breitbart, has the kind of unconventional biography for a political aide that invites particular fascination—as does his cultivation of a shadowy, Master of Darkness persona. Gossip about who's in and who's out in the scene around Trump also understandably attracts interest, and Bannon's identification with the ethno-nationalist "alt-right" movement aligned with Trump ensures that his departure, if and when it comes, will have a real symbolic meaning. But it's unlikely to affect the political trajectory of the Trump presidency to any significant degree.

Substantively, Bannon differs from the average Republican political advisor by emphasizing economically populist messages and policies on jobs, trade, and domestic infrastructure, combined with an even more aggressive opposition than other Republicans to immigration (both legal and illegal) and international alliances. This combination of positions, along with a more general "anti-establishment" attitude, has been collectively viewed as defining Trumpism as distinct from regular American conservatism.

Since taking office, however, Trump has addressed immigration fitfully and the other issues hardly at all. He has turned responsibility for setting his presidency's legislative agenda over to the Republican congressional leadership, which chose to pursue deregulation, ACA repeal (now in indefinite limbo), and comprehensive tax reform while making decidedly unenthusiastic murmurs about tackling an infrastructure bill or funding a wall along the Mexican border. It's difficult to detect Bannon's hand in most of the events of the past two months, after he took the lead in devising the "travel ban" executive order that was soon blocked in federal court (as was its replacement). Even last week's airstrike in Syria seems inconsistent with Bannon's worldview, and reports indicate that it occurred over his opposition.

Redefining the Republican Party, restructuring the international order, achieving the "deconstruction of the administrative state": these are exceedingly ambitious aims that are likely to frustrate even a competent and dedicated presidential administration. They certainly can't be accomplished, even partially, between rounds of golf or during the commercial breaks of "Fox and Friends"—or by delegating the real work to Congress or mid-level White House staff.

There was probably a time, in the immediate wake of the election when Washington was in a state of paralytic shock, when Trump and Bannon could have imposed substantial change on the political system, if they had acted quickly and effectively. But that window is now closed, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency. Poll numbers have slumped, mistakes have added up, key executive-branch positions have gone unfilled, and other political actors have perceived—and in some cases been told outright—that the new president cares more about "wins" and favorable publicity than the content of the policies implemented by his administration. This last admission is particularly damaging, since it signals to other elites that they should not take Trump's stated positions seriously—and gives them every reason to insist on policy demands of their own in exchange for political support (a tactic adopted by the House Freedom Caucus on the issue of health care).

Trump may rebound politically in the months and years to come, but it's hard to see how the larger ambitions of the "America First" policy program can be fulfilled, at least in the domestic sphere—and therefore, unclear what particular value Bannon provides by sticking around. (His removal from the NSC seems to answer the question of what future influence Bannon will have on foreign policy, even if he remains in the White House.)

At the same time, Trump's not necessarily much better off without him. An experienced, realistic, politically astute chief advisor is something this presidency needs desperately. By all accounts, however, the main rival to Bannon for Trump's favor is the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who may not represent an improvement on any of these scores and whose family ties give him more protection, and less restriction, than Bannon was ever likely to have. Trump may be merely trading frustration in the pursuit of one set of objectives for similar ineffectiveness in the fulfillment of other, equally implausible goals.

Bannon's marginalization is likely to be widely cheered in Washington, and it will be natural for critics to treat him as a personification of Trump's rocky first months in office—the Mack McLarty of the 21st century. But this view ignores the importance of the pre-existing dysfunction within the congressional Republican Party, as well as the degree to which Trump's sliding political standing also reflects his swift abandonment of economic populism to embrace Paul Ryan's agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the rest. It's not only Bannon's alt-right that has caused Trump grief; the plain old regular right is, for him, just as much of a problem.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Goodbye, Polarization—Hello, Polarization and Factionalism

Most people agree that one of the biggest problems—if not the biggest problem—in American politics today is partisan polarization, and most of those people agree that one of the biggest problems with partisan polarization is that it produces lots of gridlock. The increasing ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans in government, coupled with the parties' more frequent exhibitions of procedural hardball and shouty rancor, can easily appear to explain why Congress is not more legislatively productive, or why presidents' favored policy initiatives often founder before making it into law.

The main problem with this argument is that there was plenty of gridlock, and plenty of unrealized presidential ambition, long before polarization came along. In fact, one of the main arguments of the party reform proponents of the 1950s and 1960s was that the United States was cursed with a system of weak parties that lacked sufficient internal discipline to develop and enact an extensive platform of legislation to effectively address the concerns of the citizenry. Reformers claimed that making the parties more internally unified and more externally differentiated would lead to a more "responsible" party system that would better respond to the growing demands of modern society, enhancing both governmental efficiency and democratic accountability.

Today, we often look back at such arguments and smirk that reformers should be careful what they wish for. But is it really true that polarization itself has prevented the gears of government from turning? During the presidency of Barack Obama, Congress enacted a landmark health care reform initiative, a sizable economic stimulus package, a major financial regulation bill, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aid to the American auto industry, the Budget Control Act, and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, major legislative accomplishments included two significant federal tax cuts, the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit, a substantial increase in federal aid to public K-12 education, the USA PATRIOT Act, bankruptcy reform legislation, a ban on partial-birth abortion, campaign finance reform, the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accounting regulation bill, the 2008 financial crisis response creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and authorizations of military force in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For both presidents, polarization offered benefits as well as disadvantages. Increasing partisanship indeed made legislating more difficult when control of the government was divided between the parties. But enhanced levels of party unity also helped leaders move bills through Congress during times of unified Democratic or Republican rule; 2001 and 2003–2006 (for Bush) and 2009–2010 (for Obama) were largely productive periods for president and Congress alike.

Based on the events of the past few weeks, Donald Trump is unlikely to enjoy the same degree of success as his predecessors. But Trump's problems so far have derived less from the existence of continued warfare between the congressional parties—though such warfare indeed remains—so much as from a serious, and perhaps fatal, divide within the Republican majority itself. The purist House Freedom Caucus recently led internal opposition to the leadership- and Trump-backed American Health Care Act that quickly forced the bill to be pulled from the floor of the House, and this intra-partisan conflict appears likely to extend to tax reform, appropriations, and other items on the Republican legislative agenda this year.

This unique combination of polarization and factionalism is particularly treacherous for the Republican leadership. Attempts to satisfy the policy demands of the Freedom Caucus not only tend to cost the GOP votes from its own center-right flank but also rule out winning over any Democrats, which is ordinarily necessary to pass legislation through the Senate.

On the other hand, conceding opposition from the Freedom Caucus and instead replacing their votes with support from the Democratic side of the aisle presents its own set of difficulties. The pro-Republican shift of the South and rural Midwest has reduced the ranks of Democratic moderates over the past seven years, especially in the House. Without the ability to easily pick off two dozen or so Blue Dog centrists, as Republican leaders were often able to do during the George W. Bush presidency, the GOP is more commonly forced to negotiate with the Democratic leadership—which in turn forces them to make concessions that are unpopular with their own party's members.

This is the trap that ultimately snared John Boehner: the Freedom Caucus and other purist conservatives denied him support on the House floor, which forced him to cut deals with Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, which then opened him up to criticism (from the Freedom Caucus, conveniently enough) that he had sold out his party and his ideological principles. But the consequences are more significant now that Republicans control both Congress and the presidency. Republican factionalism complicates leaders' attempts to enact even routine, must-pass legislation such as appropriations bills and federal debt ceiling increases, and might well prove thoroughly sufficient to obstruct more ambitious initiatives.

Why did this new internal divide arise in the congressional GOP? A complete answer is beyond the bounds of this post, but the most likely causes involve the rising influence of conservative media outlets over Republican politicians, the increasing ability of congressional members to raise money without help from party leadership, the declining importance of the congressional committee system (which reduces the ability of leaders to discipline their members), and the movement-wide eruption on the American right that followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Obama is gone, of course, but a factionalized congressional Republican Party remains. And the Trump presidency will find it difficult to heal these divisions. Trump has started to recognize the problem that the Freedom Caucus and other conservative holdouts cause him, but he doesn't seem to know what to do to solve it (issuing threats via Twitter is probably not the most effective response). He also exhibits limited interest in policy, lacks the benefit of government experience or knowledge of congressional politics (as do several of his top advisors), and has dropped to a public approval rating of about 40 percent after less than three months on the job. The conditions are not auspicious for the leader of the Republican Party to promote unity within its ranks—or to successfully pressure members of the opposition party into endorsing elements of his agenda. The biggest threat to Trump's legislative ambitions at the moment is not that partisanship is too strong but that it's not strong enough.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why Wasn't Obamacare Repealed? The Answer Is the Party, Not the President

The American Health Care Act, a.k.a. the House Republicans' plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, thudded to earth on Friday afternoon after Paul Ryan concluded that he lacked the votes to pass it and pulled the bill from the floor of the House. It's always big news when the ruling party fails to enact a major legislative initiative, and even more so just two months into a new presidency. Yet the ensuing media coverage, though extensive, nevertheless gives an incomplete—and perhaps even misleading—picture of how and why the AHCA imploded so quickly and spectacularly.

Most of the stories I've seen—especially on cable news—focus their attention on Donald Trump, portraying the bill's demise as primarily a failure of the president. This is hardly a surprise. Media coverage of American politics often revolves around the presidency while giving much less attention to other relevant institutions and actors, to the extent that citizens tend to overestimate the president's responsibility for outcomes and conditions.

Trump had also set himself up for a splash in the media dunk tank by spending the past year promising voters a health care plan that simultaneously expanded coverage and reduced costs, and by bragging that his unmatched skill at negotiation would easily overcome any remaining policy disagreements. Now that events have confirmed the widespread suspicion that both claims were pure fiction, journalists will not be shy about pinning the AHCA's failure on a president whom they already view as having a big problem telling the truth.

Over the past 24 hours, several inside accounts have been published that portray Trump as having blundered through meetings with congressional Republicans, exposing a lack of policy command and an empty desire to achieve an easy legislative "win" for its own sake rather than a demonstrated commitment to a particular set of substantive goals. Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon also apparently lectured and threatened Republican holdouts in ways that ultimately backfired in attracting support.

Those not inclined to solely blame Trump for the demise of repeal-and-replace—including the White House itself—have mostly aimed their shots at Ryan instead. Liberals who have rolled their eyes for years at Ryan's boy-genius reputation in Washington claim righteous vindication from this week's events, while some conservatives sympathetic to Trump have sought to shift responsibility to the speaker for drafting an unpopular and politically risky bill that could not make it through his own House.

While it's certainly true that both the president and the speaker made mistakes in handling the health care issue, it's inaccurate to portray the demise of the AHCA as primarily a consequence of individual failures of leadership or strategy. Replace Trump and Ryan with Marco Rubio and John Boehner, or Jeb Bush and Kevin McCarthy, and the results would almost certainly be more or less the same. The bill died so quickly, and was so far away from success when it did fail (remember, the House was by all accounts the easier lift of the two chambers), that the specific day-to-day behavior of the principal actors seems inadequate to account for the result.

The real obstacle to the passage of health care reform is the Republican Party itself, and any full reckoning with what just happened has to grapple with that fact. Nearly eight years of attacks on the ACA as a "government takeover" of health care, along with repeated promises to replace the hated Obamacare with an unspecified superior alternative, paid considerable electoral dividends but left the party committed to an unachievable policy goal. Republican leaders desperately sought to placate conservatives calling for a broad rollback of federal responsibilities and expenditures, but they simultaneously refused to acknowledge that satisfying these demands in practice would result in a reduction of coverage and a relaxation of popular regulations—which in turn would alienate swing voters and mobilize political opponents.

The national party has also become increasingly influenced, if not controlled outright, by unelected activists and news media personalities who gained considerable internal power during the Obama years by constantly criticizing Republican officeholders for insufficient ideological loyalty. This dynamic has, perhaps inevitably, resulted in the formation of a faction within the congressional GOP that plays to this constituency, even when doing so is counterproductive to legislative productivity or concrete policy achievement. From the Freedom Caucus in the House to the Ted Cruz-Mike Lee axis in the Senate, the existence of these self-appointed keepers of the purist conservative flame deprives the Republican leadership of a functional partisan majority on major legislation, and this obstacle has not been removed with the election of a Republican president.

Mainstream Republicans, Trump included, have viewed the entire health care policy domain most of all as a useful club with which to beat Democrats, while hard-line conservatives have likewise viewed it as a useful club with which to beat mainstream Republicans. The various partisan and electoral motives at play have often governed Republican behavior to politically successful ends, but few within the party have concentrated on the more difficult and less immediately rewarding task of first developing workable policy alternatives to the ACA and then investing substantial energy in building support for them among their colleagues.

Some critics have argued that the AHCA, a bill that was transparently pulled together in a matter of weeks with little expert input or elite support, ultimately failed because it was bad policy. Maybe so. But we should be wary of the ensuing implication that a "better" bill would have stood a stronger chance of passage in the House. It's fair to criticize Ryan for the legislation that he drafted and promoted, but he presumably believed its provisions would best reconcile the conflicting demands of swing-seat moderates and conservative purists. The revisions made in the final hours in a futile effort to attract greater support on the right suggest that opponents of the bill would not have been easy to satisfy even with a more thorough policy-making process.

Congressional Republicans' increasingly apparent challenges in reaching internal agreement on policy—which even Ryan was forced to publicly acknowledge yesterday—do not bode well for the rest of the party's legislative agenda, from tax reform to appropriations to the looming federal debt ceiling. Nor does the current chaotic state of the Trump administration, which will hardly be in the position to deliver much assistance to Ryan and Mitch McConnell in the exercise of their leadership responsibilities over the coming months.

Up to now, the news media and Washington community have treated Trump's shocking ascension within the GOP as a more-or-less random event—the hostile takeover of an otherwise sound party apparatus. But it's time to devote much more serious consideration to the question of whether its existing internal dysfunction left the contemporary Republican Party uniquely vulnerable to a Trump-led ambush. As any health care expert knows, an effective remedy for one's ills first requires a correct diagnosis.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What's a President Gotta Do to Be Called a Conservative These Days?

Donald Trump's conservative credentials have been disputed by all sides from the moment that he emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of 2015. The editors of the National Review denounced him as a "philosophically unmoored political opportunist" in a special anti-Trump issue early last year, while both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama characterized Trump as unfaithful to conservative principles during the 2016 general election. Trump's success in capturing the Republican nomination and then the White House prompted some observant analysts on both the left and the right to conclude that the Republican Party is no longer the party of conservatism and that a realignment of the entire American party system is now underway.

We are now two months past the presidential inauguration—and while there have been a number of surprises and unprecedented acts both large and small, the actual policies and personnel of the Trump administration have emerged with some clarity. What they add up to, at least so far, is as conservative a presidency as any in modern history. Trump has endorsed an orthodox conservative legislative agenda on taxes, regulation, and health care (including a major cut to Medicaid)—and has even apparently pressured Paul Ryan to revise the House health care bill in order to address objections from hard-line conservatives. His budget proposal calls for shifting billions of dollars from domestic discretionary programs to national defense, prompting opposition even from some conservative members of Congress. On foreign policy and immigration, Trump only differs from other Republicans to the extent that he has staked out positions further to their ideological right.

Trump's hiring and appointment record tells a similar story. His cabinet is filled with conservative stalwarts like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos. Prior to his selection as Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney helped to depose John Boehner as Speaker of the House because he viewed Boehner as insufficiently devoted to conservatism. Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, is a Federalist Society-style conservative jurist. Top Trump aides Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are likewise firmly on the right end of the ideological spectrum, and palace-intrigue accounts of the Trump White House indicate that Bannon, Miller, and their allies nearly always prevail in internal disputes.

One reason for the strong right-wing character of the Trump administration is that a party, and even a presidency, is much bigger than one person. The Republican Party is increasingly controlled by ideologically-oriented politicians, activists, and media outlets, and Trump needs to work with, and maintain support from, his fellow partisans in order to govern. During the 2016 campaign, Trump sometimes promised to address policy goals that didn't fit within conservative doctrine—increasing public infrastructure spending, renegotiating trade deals, providing childcare assistance, lowering prescription drug costs—but few other Republicans, in Congress or elsewhere, share these priorities. Declining either to pressure his fellow partisans to modify their views or to build a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, Trump has yet to emphasize any of these issues since taking office.

Another explanation lies with Trump himself. There is little reason to believe that Trump is unshakably devoted to the tenets of conservative political philosophy as a personal value system. But Trump demonstrates two other characteristics that attract him to the pursuit of ambitious conservative policies: (1) a desire to project strength, decisiveness, and success by achieving large-scale—one might say "big-league"—political change; and (2) an eight-year-long resentful preoccupation with Barack Obama that has continued without abatement into the new administration, perhaps suggesting to the current president that any dramatic reversal of a policy supported by his predecessor is by definition a worthy and politically advisable act.

The gap between Trump's own public statements and his administration's actual issue positions is sufficiently large that some people are starting to wonder if Trump even understands the content of the legislation that he has endorsed and is pushing through Congress. Reporters are fanning out to the hamlets and hollows of Middle America to find Trump supporters of modest means who would be disadvantaged by the president's budget and health care proposals. How, wonders the Washington pundit class, can Trump possibly reconcile his populist appeal with his efforts to simultaneously enact a upper-income tax cut and revoke health insurance from millions of less fortunate Americans?

Trump might bet that voters will reward bold policy change for its own sake, regardless of its specific consequences. Or, perhaps, he retains confidence in his ability to successfully sell anything he does to a segment of the electorate that he once claimed was so loyal that it would still support him even if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's also quite possible that he will deny responsibility for any unpopular provisions of the policies that he endorses, instructing voters to direct their blame toward Congress, the courts, or the federal bureaucracy.

Trump may be trapped between campaign rhetoric on one side and political realities on the other, but the entire Republican Party is in a similar predicament. The congressional GOP has also been forced to grapple with the challenge of suddenly fulfilling years of breezy promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act (and to replace it with an unspecified better, cheaper alternative) without spurring a popular backlash that could endanger its control of the legislative branch in next year's midterm elections. Today's health care debate is merely one example of a larger political problem that Republican leaders have faced for the better part of a century. Perennial conservative pledges to implement significant reductions in the scope of federal power are often frustrated by the inconvenient complication that even voters who say they don't like the government do like most of the specific things that the government actually does.

Trump the candidate was shrewd enough to recognize this fact, which is why he committed himself to maintaining current Social Security and Medicare spending levels while guaranteeing all sorts of other government-provided goodies to his supporters. But Trump the president will need to be even shrewder in order to escape voter anger for seeking to cut popular federal programs and benefits in contravention of his campaign-trail promises. The current occupant of the White House may be a newcomer to the conservative cause, but he has adopted its central ambitions as his own. Now he must reckon with the most formidable obstacles to its success.