George W. Bush won the 2004 election. He won it by more than the pundits expected. He won it by enough to keep Republicans in control of the House and the Senate. He won it by enough to say, with real reason, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” He began his second term with a 57 percent approval rating.
Two years later, Republicans lost the House and Senate. Four years later, they lost the presidency. Bush left office with a 34 percent approval rating. The aftershocks of his administration would rip through the Republican Party and lead, in different ways, to both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Winning an election is the beginning of the story, not the end of it.
Bush did not become a worse politician between 2004 and 2008. He did not lose his folksy charisma or fire the architects of his political operation. He was done in, rather, by the results of his policies — the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the broad rejection of Social Security privatization. Even the most talented politician can’t out-communicate reality.
This is a lesson both Trump and congressional Republicans would be wise to heed.
In conversations in recent weeks, I’ve found that both Democrats and Republicans believe Donald Trump has suspended the rules of politics. He wasn’t supposed to win, and he did win, so who’s to say what hurts him and what doesn’t?
There’s something to be said for that view. Trump’s political successes have certainly defied my expectations. But the idea of Teflon Trump is belied by the evidence. Trump is a historically unpopular figure who received fewer votes than his opponent. He takes office with the lowest approval ratings of any president-elect on record. The surprise of his victory has overwhelmed the strangeness of its circumstances and the weak foundation upon which it rests.
And Trump’s job is about to get much harder. His great advantage as a candidate was that he had no real record in politics. He had no votes to defend or results to explain away. In that environment, you might expect Trump’s comments to be taken more seriously, but the opposite happened. Trump’s evident ignorance of policy topics, and his tendency to frequently contradict himself, raised questions about whether he believed, or even understood, what he was saying. As Vox’s Dave Roberts once wrote, evaluating Trump’s policy comments could seem a category error, like “critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.”
The results were voters, like the ones Vox’s Sarah Kliff met in Kentucky, who heard what Trump was saying and simply didn’t believe it. “I just think all politicians promise you everything and then we’ll see,” said Kathy Oller, an Obamacare enrollment counselor who voted for Trump and felt comfortable dismissing his promise to repeal the law.
But that ends now. The presidency is a job of specifics. Specific legislation that you either sign or veto. Specific executive orders that lay out their intentions in clear language. Specific nominees whose backgrounds and actions reflect back on their boss. And specific results that voters hold you accountable for.
Trump begins a nearly impossible job in a historically weak position. He is about to develop a record that he cannot escape and cannot deny. It matters greatly whether he and congressional Republicans do a good job. And it is not obvious, at least to me, that they realize it.
A Cabinet at war with itself
On Thursday, the day before Trump’s inauguration, Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Resources. Perry was there to win confirmation as Trump’s first secretary of energy, and he came with an agenda in mind.
“I'm a big believer that we have role to play in applied R&D and technology commercialization,” Perry said. He touted the government’s history helping to develop the technology that kicked off the hydraulic fracking boom. He said he wanted to increase research into advanced supercomputing. He boasted of his own work in Texas investing in solar energy research.
But shortly before Perry’s hearing began, the Hill reported that Trump’s transition team was prepping the administration’s first budget — and including massive cuts to the Department of Energy. It quickly became clear that no one had briefed Perry on the administration’s plans. What happened next, as Vox’s Brad Plumer recounts, was excruciating:
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) asked Perry whether he’d go along with eliminating the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which focuses on research around wind, solar, efficiency) or the Office of Fossil Energy (which is crucial for developing carbon capture technology for coal). He tried to shrug it off, saying, “Just because you see something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”
When she pressed, Perry meekly added that he’d try to advocate for these agencies, “but I may not be 1,000 percent successful.”
A few minutes later, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) brought up the cuts again, saying, “It’s hard to see how we can pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ [energy] strategy if so much of the department’s capabilities are eliminated. Do you support these cuts, yes or no?”
Perry made another awkward joke without really answering: “Well, Senator, maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.”
Two days before Perry’s embarrassing hearing, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, appeared before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The hearing was a fiasco.
DeVos — who has made her name in conservative politics as a billionaire donor, not a policy expert or successful public official — has few qualifications for the role, and evinced little knowledge of key debates in education. Asked an obvious question by Sen. Al Franken about whether she thought schools should be measured on the progress their students made or the absolute amount they knew, she appeared completely unfamiliar with the debate, and wasn’t able even to parse the question. At another point, she suggested guns might be needed in schools to defend against bears.
Senate Republicans seemed forewarned that DeVos was unprepared for the hearing. They scheduled the discussion, unusually, for 5 pm, and limited each senator to a single question. This perhaps protected DeVos from further embarrassment, but as Matt Yglesias wrote, it is hard to see how that actually helps the Trump administration:
At the end of the day, there is going to be an education secretary, and that person is going to be a member of Trump’s administration. It’s in the Republican Party’s interest, more than anyone else, that that person be an effective member of the team. Shielding DeVos’s flaws from public scrutiny by scheduling an unusually brief hearing with limited questions at an odd time works well if your goal is to spare her embarrassment. ... But the GOP is only sabotaging itself by allowing Trump to draft this C-list roster. The president can’t be everywhere simultaneously — an effective Cabinet is how he extends his reach, influences more people, and gets more done.
Over the weekend, Trump gave an interview to two of Europe’s biggest newspapers in which he called NATO “obsolete,” predicted the European Union would fall apart and said the United States would be perfectly happy to see it happen, and threatened a trade war with Germany over BMW locating a plant in Mexico. Meanwhile, he struck a conciliatory note on Russia, suggesting he’d be happy to lift sanctions “if we can strike a few good deals with Russia.”
As Zack Beauchamp wrote, “Trump’s stated policy ideas, if implemented, would have the effect of accomplishing much of what Putin has dreamed of but that the Russian leader may have never have thought possible.”
This is, to put it lightly, not the foreign policy that Trump’s various Cabinet nominees have outlined. His defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, aced his hearing by throwing Trump under the bus.
“The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Mattis said. He went on to call NATO “the most successful alliance in modern history, and maybe ever.” He contradicted Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, which he supports leaving in place, and on moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem.
The story was similar with other nominees. Nikki Haley, Trump’s proposed United Nations ambassador, took a hard line on Russia, and criticized Trump for his attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump’s candidate for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, tried to sidestep the whole situation by claiming he and Trump had never even talked about Russia.
And this is only counting the parts of Trump’s administration that are being staffed. The New York Times notes that Trump has named only 29 of the 660 executive branch appointment he needs to make, “a pace far slower than recent predecessors.”
It’s healthy and appropriate for administrations to contain differing opinions. But the Trump administration looks, at its inception, like an administration at war with itself, and with its boss. It doesn’t appear to be properly vetting its candidates for senior posts, preparing them for hearings, or briefing them on key plans. It is moving slowly to identify candidates, and will take office badly understaffed given the scale of Trump’s ambitions. No one knows who Trump will listen to, what he will tweet, or even what he really believes. This is a recipe for paralysis at best and disaster at worst.
A president who believes what he wants to believe
Most of Donald Trump’s tweets deserve much less attention than they get. But there was one he sent out this week that should have been taken much more seriously than it was.
The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 17, 2017
It came in response to Trump’s poll numbers, which are miserable and getting even worse. Gallup finds Trump will take office with a 40 percent approval rating. Quinnipiac pegs it at 37 percent. At this point in their pre-presidencies, Obama’s approval rating was 78 percent, Bush’s approval rating was 62 percent, and Clinton’s approval rating was 66 percent. The numbers are stark enough that Trump felt compelled to respond.
“The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls,” he tweeted. “They are rigged just like before.”
There is so much Trump has claimed to be rigged — the media, the election, the Emmys, the Electoral College, chemistry tests — that it’s easy to ignore this kind of rhetoric. But there is little reason to doubt Trump believes it. If you had just won the election in defiance of all polls, wouldn’t you?
There is little reason to believe the polls are wrong, however. First, the national polls were not far off in the election — they predicted Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, and she did, albeit by a few percentage points less than projected. But more to the point, what threw off the election polls was an incorrect model of who would actually turn out to vote — those polls, after all, have to distinguish people who will cast a ballot from those who won’t. Favorability polls don’t. They just ask anyone who is an adult, or anyone who is a registered voter, what they think.
But this fits Trump’s tendency to believe what he wants to believe — a characteristic that often leads him into stranger territory than doubting opinion polls. Trump is an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist who will believe almost anything so long as it flatters his view of the world. Obama was born in Kenya. Muslims in New Jersey cheered the fall of the Twin Towers. Climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Vaccines cause autism. The Clintons perhaps murdered Vince Foster. Obama is a secret Muslim. Antonin Scalia was assassinated. And on and on and on.
One of the dangers of the presidency is that it's easy for anyone who controls nuclear weapons to insulate himself from hard truths and unpleasant critiques. But good decisions require good information. Presidents often have to hear things they don't want to hear — that an idea isn't good, that a plan has become unworkable, that a policy doesn't add up, that a trusted subordinate is underperforming, that a strategy won't survive public or judicial scrutiny. Trump, by contrast, hears what he wants to hear.
This is why his disregard of polling is so unnerving. Republicans control the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and most governorships. The only real check on Trump’s behavior is public opinion. But if he adopts the viewpoint that polls showing him unpopular must, by definition, be wrong, it’s hard to see how he’ll be able to check his own instincts. As Dylan Matthews wrote:
If Trump does dismiss these numbers, that means he’s ignoring one of the only things that can hold him back. Instead of taking polls as indicators — imperfect indicators, but still — that something is going wrong and he might want to pivot for his own good, he might not consider them at all. If he abuses the pardon power and his favorability plummets, he won’t notice. If he repeals Obamacare without replacing it and the country rebels, he won’t believe that Americans view that as a mistake.
Successful presidencies are not built atop self-delusion. Successful policies are not designed by ignoring inconvenient facts. And if nothing else, Trump will learn it is hard to hold Congress in line once you’ve become politically toxic.
The difference between Trump and Reagan
The optimistic view of Trump is that he is the second coming of Ronald Reagan — another politician derided as a celebrity ideologue but who remade American politics for a generation.
But Reagan was the two-term governor of California when he was elected president. He had spent years marinating in conservative ideas and learning how to put them into practice. He understood the institutions he needed to work through and the politicians he needed to partner with. He was a voracious reader who took what he read seriously, and routinely compromised with reality. He entered office with a 58 percent approval rating, and cultivated an optimistic, friendly political tone meant to allay fears of his presidency.
This is not to whitewash Reagan’s record, or even to dismiss the difficulty of the job he undertook. Two years after being elected, Reagan’s approval rating had dipped into the low 40s and Democrats saw massive wins in the midterm elections. The late Washington Post columnist David Broder declared Reaganism “a one-year phenomenon” and complimented the men “working together to fill the vacuum of leadership that Reagan's phaseout has left.” Two years after that, Reagan was reelected in a landslide.
Elections are the beginning of stories, not the end of them. The hope and change Barack Obama’s supporters felt in 2008 was much diminished by 2012, and had curdled into something grimmer and more ironic by 2016. The uncertainty George W. Bush’s backers felt after the 2000 election had become elation by 2004 and devastation by 2008.
What drives the story, once a new president takes office, is reality. What changed for Reagan between 1982 and 1984 was the state of the economy. What changed for Bush between 2004 and 2006 was the grinding disaster of the Iraq War. What changed for Obama between 2008 and 2010 was that the high hopes of his election gave way to the reality of 10 percent unemployment and bitter polarization, and what changed between 2010 and 2012 was the beginning of economic recovery.
In a way few appreciated, Trump had the right experience for the job of presidential candidate. He was a reality television star at a time when cable networks and social media had turned elections into a reality television show. He knew how to hold the cameras, play the media, and thrill the crowd. He understood how to make people laugh and how to make them hate. He realized it was better to have some people love you than a lot of people merely like you.
But the job of president is different from the job of candidate — and in some ways, it is the opposite of the way Trump ran his candidacy. Trump ran on grand promises. Toward the end of the campaign, he took to telling rallies that voting for him was their last chance to “to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.” Now he needs to deliver.
This next chapter is going to ask much more of Trump. It is going to require him to run a smooth, scandal-free administration, to choose wisely between the different policy and political options he’s offered, to win over politicians and voters deeply skeptical of his intentions, to keep a fractious Cabinet from collapsing into leaks and infighting, to respond to foreign crises with calm and consideration, to prioritize issues and tasks he finds unrewarding.
In 2016, Trump ran for president promising to make America great again. In 2020, he will need to persuade the country he succeeded.
I hope he succeeds. A failed presidency is much worse on the people it fails than on the president who retires to the speaking circuit. The way Trump has managed his transition has not filled me with optimism. But the office he is about to assume has a way of changing people. Perhaps he will rise to the occasion.