If appointing CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow to run the National Economic Council is President Donald Trump’s answer, what was his question?
It can’t have been that Trump was looking for an economic adviser with a less “globalist” mindset than Gary Cohn. Kudlow, a former managing director at Bear Stearns whose CNBC show was dedicated to the proposition that America’s rich pay too much in taxes, is an ardent free trader who called the tariffs that drove Cohn out of the Trump administration “sanctions on our own country.” This leaves the confusion at the center of the Trump administration’s economic agenda unresolved.
“The appointment of Mr. Kudlow certainly does not settle or even clarify the issue of the general direction of the administration’s economic policy,” says Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Nor can it be that Trump was looking for an experienced policymaker capable of running a cleaner, more open process than Cohn. Kudlow served as a staffer in Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, but he’s never been a high-level policymaker, and his job in recent decades has been to loudly and entertainingly insist upon his own opinions, not to manage a sprawling staff dedicated to researching and surfacing the best information about complex policy topics.
Nor, in Kudlow, is Trump hiring an adviser unmarred by the failures of Washington in recent decades. Kudlow was a cheerleader for the Bush-era economic policies that led to the financial crisis and, in Trump’s view, gutted the American middle class. Kudlow supports NAFTA and dismissed signs of the 2007 crash even as it gathered force — as late as July 2008, he was saying America was in “a mental recession, not an actual recession.” He’s been dead wrong for decades on both taxes and inflation, and he claimed that invading Iraq would generate an economic boom in the United States.
But Trump sees the world through the prism of cable news, and Kudlow is cable news economics come to life. That gives him credibility in the president’s eyes. “Trump respects his opinion,” says Paul Winfree, director of economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and former deputy director of Trump’s Domestic Policy Council.
Larry Kudlow, on CNBC talking about his new gig as NEC director, says he didn't know the news was out until POTUS called him and told him it was on TV.— Ben Siegel (@benyc) March 14, 2018
He says Trump told him "You're on the air," and that he looked "handsome."
This is what CNN’s Brian Stelter calls “the Trump-TV feedback loop.” Cable news drives Trump’s agenda, and its reactions are how he measures his success. In Kudlow, Trump has an economic director who is a true creature of cable news. He has deep relationships among other pundits, he’ll be a capable Trump surrogate on television, and Trump may find it comforting to have a cable news personality constantly nearby telling him what a good job he’s doing.
Larry Kudlow, in other words, is a reasonable answer to the question, “How can Trump get more favorable coverage for his economic agenda on cable news?” And to Trump, that may indeed be the central question.
If this sounds like a strange and depressing way to choose a director of the National Economic Council, well, it is. But this is a strange presidency. And as with anything Trump does, it’s always worth considering the alternatives.
“I’m very happy that Mr. Kudlow got the nod rather than Peter Navarro,” says Strain, referring to Trump’s heterodox, protectionist trade director, who was widely believed to be in the running for NEC.
Kudlow isn’t the only conservative cable news personality Trump is considering for a key job. John Bolton, a constant presence on cable news, is widely rumored to be in line to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and Fox News hosts Jeanine Pirro and Pete Hegseth are believe to be in contention for top jobs at the Department of Justice and Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s as if Trump is trying to staff a conservative cable news network rather than a presidency.
On Tuesday night, in Pennsylvania, Republicans lost an election they should have won easily. They lost the race even though they passed their tax cuts, even though the economy is strong, even though Trump announced his steel tariffs, even though the district had gone for Trump by a massive 20 points in 2016. Similarly, Trump remains broadly unpopular despite a booming stock market and his own belief that he accomplished more in his first year than virtually any of his predecessors.
Faced with such jarring feedback, another president might wonder whether he’s missing something, whether he needs to change something fundamental about his agenda or approach. But Trump isn’t given to such self-reflection. Instead, he’s trying to change the narrative where he cares about it most: on cable news.