Politics & Policy

Uncharted Waters

Trump and Pence at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., November 7, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
It’s no time for excessive partisanship or ramming through legislative wish lists.

In Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed novel My Brilliant Friend, a brother and sister plot to design their own line of shoes in post-war Italy. The sister doubts that they’ll be successful but thinks that they should try anyway: “If you don’t try, nothing ever changes.”

With the election of Donald Trump, the American people have apparently put their faith in trying for change. Despite massive sustained opposition from almost all institutions of authority, Trump has won a commanding victory. Some of this is no doubt because of Hillary Clinton’s myriad weaknesses as a candidate. But much of it is also because of the many failures of those in power. Some of these failures are practical, such as missteps in foreign policy and financial affairs. However, some of them are ethical. For instance, the courting of identity politics has increasingly divided and poisoned the polity.

Those failures should be an example and a warning to President-elect Trump. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both governed, for a time, with their respective parties in control of Congress. Both of their administrations ended with their parties’ congressional wings devastated and a successor who was viewed, at least in some respects, as the repudiation of them. The use of power has consequences.

For a political party, gaining power can be a way of implementing a vision, but, if this vision does not live up to the people’s expectations, the exercise of that power can fuel a backlash against that party. Donald Trump has often referred to his campaign as a “movement,” and, if he wants that movement to be more than a flash in the pan, he will have to take care to ensure that he delivers on some of his promises about immigration, economic growth, and expanded opportunity. He ran on restoring competence to government, another promise he will have to live up to. On foreign affairs, where the president’s power is very expansive, he will need to work to restrain the forces of chaos and to realize the United States’ strategic interests while meeting its international obligations.

Trump faced long odds to become first the GOP nominee and then the president-elect. In many respects, implementing his agenda might be even more challenging; the example of Barack Obama proves that puissance in campaigning is different from skill in governing. The Republican party is divided on many issues, which may require Trump to persuade both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work with him and forge a legislative consensus. Trump inherits the Oval Office thanks to a slim plurality in many Rust Belt states. With the count still coming in, it looks as though Hillary Clinton would be president-elect if around 200,000 people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had voted differently. None of this imperils Trump’s legitimacy as president, but it does suggest the potential fragility of his political coalition. In his rhetoric and composure, Trump will need to comfort anxious Americans (as his victory speech aimed to do); in policy, he will have to meet some of his core commitments.

Republicans in Congress face their own challenges. Under a President Trump, the party has an opportunity to implement policies that respond to the conditions of the 21st century. They also have an opportunity to address the forces behind this populist insurgency, including socioeconomic sclerosis, gratuitous cronyism, a reckless transnationalism, and an elite’s toxic indulgence of identity politics. Confronting these issues will demand imaginative thinking.

Going forward, congressional Republicans face two temptations. The first is to use this moment of dominance simply to push through hoary items on the right-wing wish list. Some of these agenda items might be valuable, but Republicans need to take account of current conditions and needs. For example, trying to ram through entitlement reform and tax cuts without any evolution on trade and immigration, two transformative domestic issues, would be a mistake in terms of strategy and, likely, policy.

If unreflective policy nostalgia is the first temptation faced by congressional Republicans, unreflective partisanship is the second. Republicans in Congress should not forget that they, too, represent an independent branch of government, with its own privileges, powers, and duties. Congress has a vital role to play in providing checks and balances to the other branches. The willingness of some in Congress to degrade the dignity of their institution in order to be good foot soldiers for the president has undermined public faith in our core institutions and threatened our constitutional balance of powers. It has also led to worse outcomes from both a policy and a partisan perspective.

A Democratic unwillingness to defend congressional prerogatives and to provide rigorous oversight for the Obama White House lulled the Obama administration into a supreme complacency, where spin and hype replaced legislative negotiation and administrative discipline. The failures of the Obama administration helped sabotage the president’s legacy and deliver big Republican wins in recent elections. In politics, rigorous interrogation leads to stronger outcomes. The fact that so many pundits miscalculated this election so much is just the latest example of how damaging epistemic closure can be. A sustained dialogue between Congress and the presidency will probably lead to better — not worse — outcomes over the long term.

#related#A majority of the American people have felt that the nation has been on the wrong track for years. For too long, the economy has vacillated between moribund and lethargic. Global affairs grow more unsteady. Faced by populist insurgencies across the world, ruling elites have too often resorted to the crutch of shame politics, which seeks to quell dissent through ridicule and accusations of malice. Hillary Clinton’s campaign to “deplorablize” tens of millions of Americans was the embodiment of this tactic — and its political failure.

We need now a politics of empathy, virtue, and hopefulness. National affairs do not have to be zero-sum or winner-take-all. We can meet the realities of the present without abandoning core principles, and we can also distinguish fashionable assumptions from more binding tenets. It’s possible — and perhaps necessary — to recuperate a sense of open-hearted civic belonging. After Tuesday night, we are in uncharted political waters, and conservatives, of all people, should know that change has peril as well as promise.

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