Politics & Policy

Trump’s Refusal to Embrace the Norms of Presidential Behavior Will Hurt His Party

(Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
There is a difference between pursuing the office of the president and occupying it.

As an opponent of Donald Trump during the Republican primary, and as somebody who voted for a third-party candidate in the general election, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised by the policy output of this administration.

Trump’s executive appointments have been mostly solid. His administration has taken seriously the task of staffing the judiciary with good conservative judges. Ditto rolling back Obama-era regulations. Obamacare repeal-and-replace failed, but that is as much the fault of congressional Republicans — who never fashioned a viable alternative — as of the Trump administration. Sweeping tax reform is set to be enacted. ISIS has been obliterated. The economy is doing well.

And yet it is impossible to say that this year has been a successful one for the new administration. The problem has been the president himself. Trump has gone from embarrassment to gaffe to unforced error — and then back again. Four events, spanning the whole of the year, illustrate that he has failed to settle in to the presidential office: his decision to fire James Comey; his tweets speculating that Obama had “tapped” Trump’s “wires”; his defense of protesters in Charlottesville; and his endorsement of Roy Moore in Alabama.

All of these were needless mistakes that rattled the public, disheartened would-be supporters, and emboldened his critics. Sure, liberals and Democrats were never going to give him a fair shake. Sure, Obama-administration holdovers were bound to drag their feet at his policy shifts. Sure, the mainstream media was always going to be extra hard on him. But in these crucial instances, Trump harmed himself, unprompted.

Trump’s erratic behavior has had a profound effect on his job-approval rating. Starting his term at an already anemic 45 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average, he has slid to roughly 37 percent today. This shift is startling, considering that both parties enter the political arena with about 45 percent support, give or take. So, for Trump to drop eight points, from 45 to 37, means that he is probably losing Republicans, or at least Republican-leaners. These would be the kinds of voters who should, in theory, support the GOP tax bill, applaud the rollback of the regulatory state, be gladdened by his judicial appointments, and generally be willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

The president has refused to acknowledge that presidential manners are important in our system of government. Americans expect the president to behave as the tribune of the nation, to speak for the interest of the whole people. That requires a level of dignity and restraint. The president has to set aside his own personal impulses to satisfy this national expectation. He is not supposed to lash out at his critics, deliver ill-considered opinions, or generally seem intemperate.

None of this is required by the Constitution, whose qualifications for holding the presidential office are pretty minimal. But it does comport with the vision that the Framers had in mind of the president, something akin to an elected, temporary monarch in the radical Whig tradition. The president is supposed to sit above the political process, impartially administering the laws and checking Congress when it behaves hastily or unjustly. Of course, Americans expect a lot more from the president nowadays — he is supposed to lead a political party, speak for the people at large, manage Congress more directly — but this remains the bottom line. George Washington is still a template for presidential governance.

This is a model that Barack Obama expertly fit into, which is impressive considering that he also pushed the boundaries of presidential exposure. He was more available than past presidents were, as a kind of celebrity-in-chief, but he generally did a good job of maintaining this image of statesmanship. His personal favorability numbers remained strong during his term, even when his job-approval numbers fell. People were comfortable with him as “the president.”

The discomfort level with Trump, on the other hand, is so great that his numbers have fallen among Republicans, despite a decent record of policy victories. His refusal to behave how people expect the president to behave has come to dominate most aspects of the public discourse, and not in a good way for Republicans.

And make no mistake: If the GOP enters the 2018 midterm with Trump’s job approval mired in the mid 30s, it will be a “Katie Bar the Door” type of election. We saw a hint of this in Virginia, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie massively underperformed relative to his previous run for the Senate. Some Republican voters will stay home. Others will cast a protest vote for the Democratic party. This could have huge consequences for Republicans’ standing in the House of Representatives, for the organization of the GOP electorate is such that a lot of districts are something like 55 to 60 percent Republican. This helps pad the party’s majority when it is reasonably popular, but if the party loses even a small share of its voters to Democrats, it could result in a massive wave.

And yes, the odds of the Senate flipping to the Democrats in this kind of situation will be high as well. Also, look out for big swings in the balance of power in state legislatures and governorships.

Trump used a unique playbook to win the White House, and it is understandable — to an extent — that he would wish to continue employing it. But there is a difference between pursuing the office of the president and occupying it. Public expectations change, and Trump has so far failed to live up to them. If he does not change course in 2018, voters will punish his party, big league.


Why Trump Gets Away With Breaking Norms

Donald Trump’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

When is Trump Going to Pivot?

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