Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Donald Trump and the Electoral Benefits of Presidential Weakness

I recently argued that Donald Trump has been, so far, the weakest of the modern (i.e. post-FDR) presidents in exercising the power of the office on behalf of policy goals. Moreover, the Trump presidency does not appear to be gaining in capacity over time. Rather than learning from early failures and bringing in experienced Washington hands to steady the ship, as previous presidents like Bill Clinton did, Trump has opted instead to retreat further into a skeletal executive branch increasingly bereft of managerial talent and substantive expertise. The power of presidential speech has also been diluted to an unprecedented point, since attentive audiences within the political system—members of Congress, journalists, bureaucrats, even the president's own subordinates—have learned through experience that Trump's words often bear no relationship to his actions or those of his administration.

This is a prescription for nothing much getting done. Indeed, it seems as if progress on the president's agenda has either slowed or stalled on nearly every major policy dimension. Such a development is bad news for anyone invested in those policies. But it's probably good news for Trump's re-election chances.

One of the major lines of attack on Trump in 2016 was that he represented a potential threat to the survival of the nation, or even the globe. Jeb Bush called Trump a "chaos candidate . . . [who] would be a chaos president," while Hillary Clinton argued that "a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." Some otherwise persuadable voters may have declined to support Trump over these concerns; as Clinton advisor Mandy Grunwald recalled after the 2016 election, "I don't think we ever had a focus group where somebody didn't say, 'He's going to blow up the world. I just can't do that.'"

Trump's administration may indeed be fairly described as chaotic, but he hasn't introduced the kind of visible instability to the nation, or the world, that swing voters might easily perceive and punish in 2020. The weakness of his presidency has prevented him from accomplishing major policy objectives that would also have been politically treacherous. For example, both the repeal of the ACA and the instigation of multi-front trade wars would have resulted in economic disruption within a significant segment of the national electorate, and it is surely to Trump's electoral benefit that neither goal has (yet) been achieved. Mass deportations of DACA beneficiaries would likewise have caused a political firestorm from which judicial intervention has, at least up to this point, helpfully protected the Trump re-election campaign.

Though he has failed to deliver on many other promises as well—he did not get Carl Icahn to negotiate new trade agreements with China and Japan, or end birthright citizenship, or bring back the coal industry, or invest an additional $1 trillion in infrastructure, or enact a federal child care plan designed by his daughter, or prove to be so dedicated a president that he was too busy to take vacations—Trump has remained overwhelmingly popular among his 2016 supporters. In addition, the president has benefited from a solid economy and strong record of job growth. Here, too, the frustration of his greater ambitions may have worked to his political advantage—what would have happened to the financial sector in the wake of, say, a hard exit from NAFTA rather than the quiet negotiation of a near-identical successor agreement?

Trump is now positioned to run for a second term less as a transformational figure continuing his project to remake American politics and society than as a defender of the status quo against what will no doubt be characterized as a radical socialist alternative. If he loses, it will be due more to his existing unpopular personal qualities than to any particular act that he committed while in office. The enduring weakness of his presidency may well prevent Trump from making much of a mark on history, but he could earn a second term if he's able to convince enough voters that they don't have much to fear from more of the same—and that it's the Democrats, instead, who offer a risk America can't afford to take.