NBC’s Saturday Night Live ran a skit over the weekend lampooning Donald Trump as the clueless center of his transition team, portraying his aides as sycophants and his chief strategist Steve Bannon as a black-robed creature in a skeleton mask.
The reality is far different. Trump has reached out to former critics such as Nikki Haley and James Mattis and offered them key Cabinet positions. He’s met with Mitt Romney, one of his fiercest critics, twice. His picks for the heads of such departments as Health and Human Services, Education, and Transportation are knowledgeable conservatives. The pace with which he’s been naming top officials is faster than that of any modern president-elect.
Trump remains suspicious of many of the advisers who guided both of the former Presidents Bush (both Bushes declined to endorse Trump). “Basically, if your name appeared on a Never Trump public letter or you declared him ‘unfit’ to be president, you can expect your job application to remain in the bottom of the pile,” a key Trump adviser told me.
With the sidelining of the Bush League, others will fill the vacuum of the Trump transition team. Conservative are cheerful at the thought, in large part because the Trump transition team is relying heavily on groups such as the Federalist Society. Among such groups, perhaps the biggest role is being played by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that played a major role in Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981. Back then, its 1,100-page book of policy analysis, Mandate for Leadership, offered specific recommendations on policy, budget, and administrative action for all Cabinet departments, as well as advice on agencies staffed by political appointees. Reagan gave a copy of the book to each member of his Cabinet at their first meeting. Heritage boasts the 60 percent of its recommendations became reality in some form during Reagan’s tenure.
Part gatekeeper, part brain trust, and part boots on the ground, Heritage is both a major presence on the transition team itself and a crucial conduit between Trump’s orbit and the once-skeptical conservative leaders who ultimately helped get him elected.
Key Heritage people involved at the top of the Trump transition effort include former Heritage president Ed Feulner, former Reagan attorney general Ed Meese, and former Reagan aide Becky Norton Dunlop. Rebekah Mercer, a Heritage board member and key Trump donor, is on the transition team’s 16-member executive committee. Former Heritage scholar Ken Blackwell is heading Trump’s domestic transition team.
Heritage shares responsibility with the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian legal group, for developing the list of 21 Supreme Court choices from whom Donald Trump has pledged to draw when he nominates a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia.
The list improved Trump’s standing with many conservatives skeptical of his unmoored campaign speeches; for more than a few, the list was what convinced them to back his candidacy. “Trump won over conservatives when faced against Hillary Clinton, winning 81 percent of the Evangelical vote,” Trump pollster John McLaughlin told me in an interview. “That was a higher percentage than George W. Bush — favorite of born-again Christians — earned in his winning race in 2004.”
This does not mean that conservatives won’t blanch at elements in Trump’s game plan. Many were troubled by the pressure that Trump put on the Carrier company to keep 1,000 manufacturing jobs in Indiana — in their view, it emphasized the “bully” part of the presidential “bully pulpit” Trump will use to persuade people.
Then there is Trump’s ambitious infrastructure program to pump federal dollars into the economy. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told The Hollywood Reporter last month. “It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.” Conservatives will probably rankle at the reference to the job-creation programs of FDR’s New Deal.
Still, for now, conservative reaction to Trump’s transition ranges from cautious optimism to borderline giddiness. Heritage president Jim DeMint, a former senator, says he is more excited than at any time since his first election to Congress in 1998. “It is now the happy task of conservatives . . . to ensure those ideas lead the way,” he wrote in a recent post at Heritage’s site.Certainly, such an opportunity comes across only rarely. Since World II, each major political party has typically had eight years in the White House, worn out its welcome, and then been replaced by the other party for eight years. The first exception to this pattern was Jimmy Carter, who served only one term. The only other exception came when Ronald Reagan handed over his power to George H. W. Bush for a single term in 1988, for a total of twelve years of Republican rule in the White House — then Bush destroyed his credibility by breaking his “no new taxes” pledge and lost his 1992 bid for reelection
That cycle of eight years in power followed by eight years in the wilderness has meant that each party gets the chance to sweep away the legacy of the other party and make radical changes of its own only once every 16 years. Conservatives last had this opportunity when George W. Bush was took office in 2001, and they acknowledge that the Bush team made many mistakes over the next eight years. The reason conservatives or so eager to make the Trump transition — and administration — work is that they haven’t see this kind of opportunity since the dawn of this century.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.