Almost two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, it is time to take stock not only of his many successes, but also of the times when he has failed to make the most of his opportunities. Trump has, by almost all accounts, presided over one of the strongest economies in recent decades, fueled in part by a sizable tax cut that he championed, and overseas he has wrung numerous and historic concessions from our allies and our enemies alike. And yet President Trump’s approval rating hovers in the low to mid-40s—hardly a ringing endorsement from the American people.
Although relentlessly hostile media coverage explains most of this dichotomy, it is impossible to deny that some of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted. On several occasions, he has failed to capitalize on opportunities to improve his political standing. Conservatives must hope that Trump and his top aides are capable of learning from these mistakes and can perform better in the two years ahead. Their performance, after all, will determine whether voters will give the Age of Trump a new lease on life in 2020, or whether they will instead empower a Democrat, and possibly a wild-eyed socialist. The stakes could not be higher.
First, we should admit that the Mueller investigation of alleged “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, although it has been conducted irresponsibly and mean-spiritedly by Mueller himself, represents in the first instance, a failure of leadership by President Trump.
A special prosecutor probably would never have been appointed if Trump had chosen his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General more circumspectly, or if he had not fired FBI Director James Comey when and how he did. Trump also repeatedly has indicated fear of the various probes when, in fact, as an innocent man he would have been better served by welcoming investigations that could clear his name.
Alternatively, if Trump stands by his statements about Mueller’s conflicts of interest and prosecutorial misconduct, he might have fired him, and thus ended the inquiry, or he could have replaced Mueller with someone marginally less diabolical. The resulting hue and cry would have been earth-shattering for a time, true, but by now it would have subsided, and the country would be better off.
In the end, therefore, if Trump had handled the challenge of “collusion” more deftly, chances are that the narrative would have long since disappeared from the news cycle. Instead, Trump gave Democrats an opening, and they continue to exploit it.
Second, neither Trump nor his Attorney General have pursued the numerous avenues of investigation that could have put Democrats on the defensive. If Mueller can scour the Republican ranks for tax cheats and “liars,” giving them the squeeze and getting them to “sing” their secrets, then surely the same treatment could be meted out to Democrats.
The Steele Dossier, FISA abuse, Hillary Clinton’s email cover-up, efforts in the Democratic Party to sabotage the Sanders campaign in 2016, brazen obstruction of the enforcement of federal immigration laws, the campaign of illegal leaks designed to discredit the Trump administration, Democrats’ own role in “foreign meddling”—any one of these outrages, or all of them, could have provided justification for the appointment of one or more special prosecutors who, in effect, would have been tasked with shaking the Democratic “tree” to see if any indictable miscreants fell out. Such an aggressive strategy probably would have uncovered substantial wrongdoing, but even if it hadn’t it would surely have given the news media something juicy to talk about besides Russian collusion.
Third, President Trump, although he has been savaged by economic “experts” and the press for his trade war with China, deserves credit as one of the only American Presidents in the post-war era willing to stand up for U.S. national economic interests. In particular, he is pushing back against unfair trade practices that have, over many years, cost us millions of jobs and trillions of dollars.
Although Trump will never get a fair shake from the establishment or from the media on this point, he ought to be able to play upon the fact that patriotic Americans, including many liberals and union members, have long resented the deceptive and selfish trade policies of countries like China. The unapologetic pursuit of trade fairness ought, therefore, to be a theme around which President Trump can build some degree of bipartisan unity.
Indeed, a certain number of Democrats do support the President’s trade policies, including tariffs, viewing them as long overdue, but Trump has gotten remarkably little credit, nor does he lay much emphasis on trade in his public statements and tweets. Many Americans believe in an “America First” trade agenda and foreign policy, but Trump has so far failed to build a broad coalition of support for his brand of nationalism.
Fourth, President Trump believes not only in the vigorous pursuit of American interests, but also in the limiting of governmental power. His efforts to reduce government regulation in, and federal oversight of innumerable aspects of our economy and society accord with a basic and ingrained American attitude: suspicion of intrusive government.
Trump, like many Republicans, is too apt to play the Democrats’ game of lavishly funding and expanding programs that accord with his stated priorities (like the military and veterans’ affairs), when arguably he would be better off holding the line against governmental expansion, runaway spending, and over-regulation. Some of these battles are hard to wage without Congressional support, but at least in terms of regulation the Trump administration has achieved remarkable progress in freeing the American people from the unwanted attentions of “Big Brother”.
If American politics is a contest between those who want more government and those who want less, Trump should not hesitate to advocate the latter approach because it is always the more popular one when fairly presented. The alternative—socialism—is not, never has been, and never will be, in the spirit of America. The American people want to keep as much of their own money as possible, and they want government bossing them around as little as possible. These are themes that President Trump could emphasize much more than he has up to now. But he has to do it or the media will control the narrative.
Fifth, although President Trump cannot dictate how the media will cover the news, he can push back against media bias, using the leverage conveyed by his control over access to the White House and to himself. Trump has been freewheeling in his criticism of the press, and that is fair enough, but he has not held rogue journalists to account in any meaningful way, Jim Acosta’s short lived expulsion from the White House Press Corps notwithstanding. Why not simply cease to call on them? Why not extend invitations to outlets whose coverage is more balanced, if less widely disseminated (at least for now)? Trump, though, long ago sent the unfortunate message to the news media that it could disrespect him with impunity, and not surprisingly he has suffered from their slings and arrows ever since.
The good news is that, even though Trump and his team have made numerous mistakes in the last two years, and even though he has missed many opportunities to gain political capital or to improve his public image, he has plenty of time to make good in each of the five areas I have mentioned.
Mueller’s rampages can still be contained, new special prosecutors can still be named, the mobilization of a patriotic coalition to support trade fairness is still possible, the message of limited government is still salient, and a greater degree of discipline can still be imposed on the White House press corps. The next two years can, in other words, be a distinct improvement on the last two, in terms of the Trump administration’s adroit exploitation of political openings.
If Trump seizes any or all of the opportunities I have outlined, his chances of reelection will rise, and he will have proven that his political judgment is as “great” as his vision for the country.
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