Politics & Policy

But Gorsuch and Kavanaugh?

President Trump with Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh at the White House, July 9, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
A transactional relationship with Trump may be enough for judicial conservatives.

I was wrong about Donald Trump. At least, somewhat wrong. I wasn’t thinking about judges. It’s time to reassess.

Before his election I argued against voting for Donald Trump, even if you wanted to burn the whole world down. I did so even as a conservative who has wanted the GOP to adopt some populist and nationalist positions. The idea behind the column was that Trump’s character was so bad, populists could not trust him to deliver. I wrote:

The idea that a man so proud of the serial abandonment of his wedding vows, his creditors, his customers’ interests, and his past political personas will suddenly find the integrity and strength of will to deliver on campaign promises is not just impossible to believe, it is the kind of fantasy that discredits the person who entertains it.

This judgment was informed not just by my low view of his character but by my belief that even asserting control over the executive branch is difficult for any president, and that Trump would not be able to staff an administration with competent people who would implement his views.

In that original column I made many predictions about how a Trump presidency would turn out. Let’s review some of them. I predicted that, “by the end of Trump’s first term, perhaps 50 miles of wall would be half-constructed on the border, not paid for by Mexico.” This is turning out to be too optimistic. Of course Mexico isn’t paying for it. And there’s really no new wall construction happening at all, as Ann Coulter reminds her audience daily. I said Trump would institute his once touted “touchback amnesty” and that immigration enforcement would relax. Although Trump has toyed with various smaller amnesties, in fact that hasn’t happened, and enforcement has been stepped up.

I wrote that Trump’s foreign policy would turn on public opinion, and he would “involve our nation in military commitments he doesn’t bother to understand or have patience to see through.” Trump has been more peaceful than I expected, though he has stepped up America’s involvement in conflicts that pre-existed his presidency. But I do think that he has shown what I referred to as an “absence of mind” in his dealings with North Korea. He stepped up pressure to the boiling point, then got his summit with Kim. The summit was popular. Unfortunately, while there he signed his name to language that favors North Korea’s interests, not ours.

I predicted “no major trade deals will have been renegotiated.” This is turning out to be true only technically. Trump isn’t exactly getting new agreements, but he is using the broad trade authority granted to the president by Congress to take trade actions against Canada, Europe, and China in hopes of leveraging better deals for America within existing arrangements.

I concluded that he would have to rely on the existing Republican “apparatus” to get things done. He did so in passing tax cuts. Full repeal and replacement of Obamacare never materialized. Politically, that worked out as two wins for him. Voters would have looked unkindly on another dramatic round of insurance cancellations. And the tax cut has kept the economy roaring, for now.

One thing I didn’t mention was the judiciary. Here Trump’s reliance on the existing Republican institutions is proving to be a boon for conservatives. With a Republican Senate and the death of the filibuster, he is quickly adding conservative jurists to the courts. And now he has named his second Supreme Court justice, who will likely be confirmed. These picks have united conservatives.

On the judiciary, Trump’s reliance on the existing Republican institutions is proving to be a boon for conservatives. With a Republican Senate and the death of the filibuster, he is quickly adding conservative jurists to the courts.

And they do raise a question. Is it better for conservatives to have a more flatly transactional relationship with the GOP president? Trump is not in any way a social conservative. And he does not seem to have any kind of constitutional philosophy. To win over social and judicial conservatives he adopted a more confrontational and less discreet approach than Republicans usually do. He provided a specific list of judges. And he took the unusual step of promising only to appoint justices who would overturn Roe. In the past, Republicans have always tried to fudge and fold this into their promise to nominate “originalists.” Trump’s explicitness probably helped him.

Conservatives gave him their votes. And he is giving them their judges faithfully, much to my own surprise. Perhaps having a more transactional relationship is indeed better for conservatives. Someone who had been accepted by social conservatives as a true believer might have been able to abuse their trust more.

And it’s a sign of progress and political maturity to accept a transactional relationship when you can get it. The test of political strength isn’t in getting people who agree with you to do what you want when they are in office; it’s to get people who don’t agree with you to do what you want. Rhetorically and personally, Trump’s conversion to the pro-life cause and judicial conservatism is late, and unconvincing. But his attempts to earn that trust and vindicate those who put their faith in him with his actions are commendable. It’s hard to imagine any of his Republican primary opponents choosing better justices.

There are still many reasons to worry about Trump’s long-term effect on the Republican party, and on the country he leads. But if your primary concern in voting for him was in protecting and expanding conservative influence in the judiciary, he has more than vindicated your political calculus. If the only reason you didn’t vote for him in 2016 was because you believed people like me who said that he wouldn’t keep his promises on matters like this, you need to think again ahead of 2020. I will.

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