Behind the chaos curtain, Trump is grinding out a lot of policy wins
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s White House presents a daily tableau of chaos, falsehoods, caustic attacks, and allegations of corruption. But despite his stormy and impulsive management style — and in some ways, because of it — Trump is presiding over an administration that is grinding out policy victories with surprising efficiency, fulfilling campaign promises and propelling his support among Republican voters to record heights.
Nearly 18 months after taking office, his accomplishments have reached something of a critical mass, with Republicans rallying around him over wins that have thrilled the party base from social conservatives to defense hawks. The majority of his successes have been reversals of the Obama agenda, a goal shared by Republican leaders who are now tacitly or actively participating in his remake of the 164-year-old Republican Party to match his own image and priorities.
Republican supporters assert that, after a rocky start in 2017, Trump has learned on the job and is now firmly in control of the GOP and the nation’s agenda. If they are right, it is certainly Democrats’ worst nightmare.
“Every month that goes by strengthens the president’s hand,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump confidant and the chief executive of the right-leaning media outlet Newsmax. “His foreign policy success, especially now with North Korea, makes people think, ‘OK, he’s different. I don’t agree with all his approaches, but something is working here and let’s give it a try.’ ”
Even Republicans who have been highly critical of Trump are torn. They are impressed with the pace of his work on the conservative wish list, as they continue to fret about the direction he is pulling the Republican Party, away from its traditional ideological pillars and toward one that revolves around Trump’s singular personality.
“When are Republicans going to stand up to Trump? Never. They’re getting what they want,” said Charlie Sykes, a longtime Wisconsin-based conservative talk radio host.
“This is the agonizing dilemma for a lot of folks,” he said. “You get the tax cuts, but then of course you might have to swallow a trade war. You get federal judges, but you might also have to bite your tongue when you see attacks on the rule of law. A lot of Republicans and conservatives are really wrestling with that checkered record.”
Trump has reshaped the federal judiciary system — from his Supreme Court appointment of Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch to dozens of lifetime appointments in the lower courts. He has taken a sledgehammer to Barack Obama’s environmental policies. He has appeased social conservatives with policies targeting transgender rights. He has eviscerated Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
And while he is satisfying conventional Republican constituencies like business executives and evangelicals, his penchant for disrupting the status quo is appealing to a nontraditional populist base hungry for action in a capital long frozen in place by partisan divisions. In the past week alone, he has blown up decades of GOP doctrine and conventional wisdom by upending decades-old trade policies, feuding with mainstay allies, and opening up direct talks with North Korea.
His record goes a long way toward explaining why Republican leaders are so often silent in the face of new Trump policies such as cozy relations with Russia and attacks on federal law enforcement. Members of Congress can read polls like anyone else: Nearly 90 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing, which puts him at a higher level of support than any president has had with his own party aside from George W. Bush, whose popularity soared after the 9/11 terror attacks. Among all Americans, Trump’s approval rating has consistently climbed above 40 percent in recent weeks — low for historic standards but a resurgence for him.
Many candidates are hugging Trump tightly, running ads that feature him prominently and tout how closely aligned they are to his policies. Republican primary voters in South Carolina last week ousted an incumbent, Representative Mark Sanford, who had been critical of Trump, and in Virginia they nominated a controversial US Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, who has modeled his campaign on Trump in both substance and style.
“They’re talking about things he wants to do, especially immigration,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who closely tracks races around the country. “The most frequent mention of something that he has done is tax cuts.”
Trump’s surge in strength highlights the stakes for Democrats in 2018. If they hope to slow him down, they need to win back majorities in Congress, and there have been some troubling signs.
In Florida — the nation’s largest swing state and a key to the 2020 presidential election — some 48 percent of voters approve of the job Trump is doing, compared with 49 percent who disapprove, according to a recent survey conducted for Politico and AARP. His numbers are even better among voters age 50 and older, which is an important factor in a state rich in reliably voting retirees.
In the US Senate race, incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson is running neck and neck with Republican challenger Rick Scott, who is the current governor.
“This is what keeps me up at night,” said Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic strategist. “I’m afraid that Democrats are so upset with the abnormality of Donald Trump that they’re not focusing enough on the substance — on the policies and the programs and the damage that he’s doing to the country.”
“To pretend nothing’s getting done, or it’s just about the tax bill and North Korea — even if those are front of mind — is a mistake,” he added.
Fenn thinks Democrats need to make a stronger argument about why voters should reward them with majorities: that they could be an effective check on Trump.
“This is not a competent man in charge here. But that doesn’t make any difference,” Fenn said. “There are people, whether in the Justice Department dealing with immigration or in housing and urban development dealing with help for poor people — you’ve got ideologues in there who are undermining, in our view, clear, right policy objectives.”
In many cases, Trump has managed to impose his will on issues despite intra-party divisions that have prevented sweeping legislation from clearing Congress.
While Congress was unable to repeal Obama’s signature health care law, for instance, Trump and Republicans have devised ways to weaken it substantially. In the December 2017 tax cut bill, they ended the individual mandate requiring that virtually all Americans have health insurance. And now the Justice Department has said it will not step in legally to protect patients with pre-existing conditions hit with coverage denials or exorbitant premiums.
Longer term, there is a downside to many of Trump’s actions, and many of them are still a work in progress. Talks with North Korea, for example, show the power of Trump’s stagecraft to punch through decades of deadlock, but many Republicans worry that he is giving away too much without any firm commitments from Kim Jong Un, a ruthless dictator who has recently gone through a rapid public relations remake.
Trump’s policy successes also could be fleeting: Most of them have come through executive orders, which means they could be undone as quickly as he enacted them. Trump has issued such orders at a rate of 54 per year, a brisker pace than any other president since Jimmy Carter, according to data kept by the American Presidency Project.
Still, key members of Trump’s Cabinet have proved lethally efficient when it comes to gutting Obama-era policies.
His secretaries and administrators have slashed the size of federal parkland, rescinded fuel economy standards, opened up new offshore oil and gas drilling along US coastal waters, and authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring oil from Canada to the United States. They have dismantled a unit of the Department of Education that investigated some for-profit schools, and have delayed rules designed to protect borrowers defrauded by predatory lenders.
“In those places where he placed very conservative people who had a clear agenda . . . there is definitely big change happening in subterranean ways,” said Daniel Gitterman, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied Trump’s executive orders. “Perhaps by all the focus on dysfunction of the White House, we’re missing that he’s got some lieutenants who have a clear mission.”