WASHINGTON - Eighty days into President Donald Trump’s term, he arguably has only two successes - getting confirmed a Supreme Court judge pre-vetted by conservative lawyers and returning to mainstream Republican foreign policy, even if temporarily, in launching strikes on Syria. The unpredictable president sent to shake up Washington succeeds when he at his most conventional.
Right-wing nationalists are already squawking about the president’s Syria action, which alt-right champion Stephen Bannon reportedly opposed. (Opposing one of your president’s only achievements is not a smart career move.) And it is distinctly possible this was a one-time, reflexive action as impulsive as a tweet. There is no indication, let alone guarantee, that Trump sees the benefit of an integrated approach to Syria in which more robust action inflicts real damage on Bashar Assad’s regime and thereby pushes him to a negotiated end to the bloody war. Eliot Cohen writes in the Atlantic this is in the category of a “pinprick”:
“[T]his was a one-time punch at a single target. A truly punishing attack would involve multiple targets, and perhaps repeated blows. An effective, destructive attack - that is, one that would worry the Assad regime - would have killed skilled personnel, military and political leaders, and elite fighters. This strike was, instead, appropriate in the narrowest and weakest sense: It went after the base (apparently) from which the nerve-agent-carrying planes that attacked Khan Sheikhoun flew. Blowing up some installations is not, in fact, “proportionate” to the massacre of children. A warning this was; the avenging sword of justice this was not. Conceivably, the Syrian government may calculate that worse will follow from a repeat offense. Just as conceivably, they and their Russian and Iranian allies may conclude that this president, like some of his predecessors, mistakes the theater of war for the real thing. They do not.”
But however tentative, the Syria strike drew bipartisan and international praise. With a strong, internationalist approach grounded in U.S. values - not a mean-spirited, peevish “America First” stance - Trump can make our national security policy great again.
On the domestic side, right-wing industrialists may like deregulation. Wealthy supporters may thrill to the idea of repealing the Obamacare tax on richest Americans. But neither of these do anything for the working man, and indeed Trumpcare was a dagger aimed at the heart of rural, older Trump voters.
This is what Bannon’s “dismantling of the administrative state looks like” - right-wing policy on steroids.
Bannon’s “philosophy” is a crock - a government for the little guy cannot be dismantled so long as the little guy needs help. Bannon’s actual formula is extreme, Darwinian, libertarian economics coupled with xenophobic initiatives (the Muslim ban, getting Mexico to build the wall). These are as unworkable as they are unpopular. (A substantial majority of Americans favor a path to citizenship and oppose the ban.)
Following Bannon’s logic gets you a budget like the one Trump put forward - politically unacceptable and withdrawing services working- and middle-class Americans need (from National Parks to medical research to enforcement of worker safety rules). Bannon’s populism isn’t populism at all, and it is not popular. Trump’s agenda is in tatters and his polls numbers are in the toilet thanks to Bannon’s “genius.” (Perhaps Trump won despite his cockeyed agenda, not because of it?)
Trump would do well to listen to what voters are saying. In the most recent Gallup poll, for example, voters are in favor of true populist measures:
“Americans are far more likely to agree than disagree with President Donald Trump’s proposals to require companies to provide family leave for parents of a newborn [81 percent approve] and to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure [76 percent approve]. A majority also agree with his proposal to significantly cut income taxes for the middle class [61 percent] and to provide federal funding for school-choice programs [59 percent].
“At the same time, Americans disagree more than agree with Trump’s proposals to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico [36/56 percent], to cut federal regulations[27/46 percent], to freeze federal civilian hiring [33/46 percent] and to eliminate funding for international organizations that provide abortions [35/53 percent].”
In other words, voters overwhelmingly oppose everything Trump has been doing under Bannon’s tutelage. Forget America First, tax cuts for the rich, slashing government, anti-immigrant schemes and dismantling more regulations. Spend money on popular items (schools, infrastructure) and return the United States to a position of world leadership. Fix Obamacare to make it more affordable for working class Americans. (Aside from Justice Neil Gorsuch, notice, by the way, how much this looks like Hillary Clinton’s or John Kasich’s agenda. This sure lends credence to the conclusion Trump won because voters didn’t like Clinton personally.) So, if Trump governs as a centrist, internationalist then success likely will follow - as will stronger poll numbers.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.