Politics & Policy

Trump’s Strong Start on Policy

President Trump speaks before a Cabinet meeting at the White House, December 7, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
A first-year report card

Gorsuch confirmed, ISIS defeated, taxes cut: The Trump administration has compiled a solid record of accomplishment in its first year, one that compares well with the records of many of its predecessors.

Two of the biggest accomplishments came late in the year. The prime minister of Iraq declared victory over ISIS on December 9. Republicans reached a deal that seemed to secure passage of a tax bill on December 15. Until then, it appeared possible that 2017 would end without an all-Republican government enacting any major legislation.

Now the Republicans’ policy record looks better, at least as most conservatives see it. The tax bill advances several longstanding conservative objectives. It cuts tax rates for most Americans, slashes the corporate-tax rate for the first time in decades, expands the tax credit for children, limits the reach of the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, and scales back the tax break for expensive homes. By scaling back the deduction for state and local taxes, it may encourage a more conservative fiscal politics in the states. And it allows drilling to proceed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The tax bill also partly makes up for the failure of Republican efforts earlier in 2017 to repeal Obamacare. The health-care law imposes fines on people who go without insurance. The tax bill sets the fines at zero. The least popular feature of Obamacare is thus effectively nullified.

Some conservatives would have considered voting for Trump in November 2016 worth it just for Justice Neil Gorsuch. His appointment to the Supreme Court means that Justice Scalia’s seat will remain filled by an originalist for the next few decades. If one of the Democratic appointees or Justice Anthony Kennedy leaves the Court while Republicans hold the Senate, Trump will have the opportunity to create the first conservative majority in modern constitutional history. Trump has also nominated many well-qualified conservative jurists to the appeals courts. (The quality of his district-court nominees appears to be significantly lower.)

The administration has begun to rein in regulation. It has withdrawn and modified several of the Obama administration’s regulations, often in concert with Congress. It has stopped or slowed the progress of many others that were barreling down the tracks. The Environmental Protection Agency, now run by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, has also taken steps to end the practice of “sue and settle,” in which activist groups get the agency to adopt new policies through lawsuits.

Trump killed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have imposed significant economic costs while doing little to reduce the risks of global warming. He has effectively ended the Obama administration’s mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage: Employers who object to providing that coverage, or providing forms of that coverage they consider to cause abortions, are to be exempt. If the new policy stands, the Little Sisters of the Poor will be spending less time in court. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has withdrawn Obama-era regulations that led colleges to lower the burden of proof for sexual-misconduct allegations and to monitor professors’ speech.

Conservatives of various types have thus seen progress on their agenda in 2017.

Most conservatives cheered two symbolic actions by the administration: announcing that our embassy in Israel will move to the country’s capital city of Jerusalem and that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord. (I count that planned withdrawal as symbolic because the accord did not bind us to any policy commitments.)

Conservatives of various types have thus seen progress on their agenda in 2017. Economic conservatives got tax cuts and some deregulation. Legal conservatives got judicial appointments and an executive branch more mindful of the limits of its policymaking authority. Social conservatives also benefited from the judicial appointments and welcomed Trump’s policy of blocking international family-planning funding from going to organizations that promote or perform abortions.

Many Republicans credit Trump for presiding over a strong economy, too. It’s a point that requires some context. Job growth has not been quite as fast as it was in Obama’s last year, but you’d expect it to slow after an expansion this long. Republican economic policies may have played a role in keeping the expansion going. Certainly the predictions of economic doom made right after the election by some Trump opponents — chiefly Paul Krugman — have not come to pass.

It’s not the only bad outcome that has been avoided. Trump has started no trade war and has not blown up the World Trade Organization. He has merely engaged in the low-grade protectionism that is routine for presidents of both parties, and withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which may not have been able to win congressional approval even if Trump had stayed in. NATO is still standing, too, and Trump’s complaints about allies’ burden-sharing may be arresting Western Europe’s slide into functional pacifism.

How much Trump contributed to what has gone right in 2017 is debatable. He had less influence over the shape of the tax bill than most presidents exert over major laws. His unpopularity has probably dragged down the bill’s poll numbers. The failure on Obamacare was partly his. And if we have avoided a trade war, it may because he has hired people who are undercutting him. He has reportedly complained that he wants to go further in imposing tariffs but his advisers keep thwarting him.

People who voted for Trump in November 2016 on the theory that he would deliver policies radically different from what other Republicans would do should be disappointed. Those who voted for him because he would usually line up with conservatives and sign Republican bills, on the other hand, have reason to be pleased with his policy record.

They may not like everything about this presidency, the effects of which will not be limited to changes in public policy. Many of Trump’s conservative supporters share some of the concerns of the majority of Americans who oppose him. These conservatives wish the president had spoken more firmly and consistently to denounce the white supremacists in Charlottesville, or had kept his distance from Roy Moore, or had contained himself on Twitter. On policy matters, though, they are getting what they wanted from him.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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