Policymaking is hard.
Conservatives who were snorting in self-satisfaction over Donald Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court have been bitterly disappointed this week, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing an opinion exnihilating into the federal law a new set of claims for homosexuals and transgender people under the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the theory that these have always been there, lurking in the text, waiting to be discovered. Another notional conservative, George W. Bush appointee Chief Justice John Roberts, has just handed the Trump administration a humiliating defeat, overturning White House efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s patently illegal executive order protecting certain illegal immigrants.
Conservatives who thought that they were one or two Supreme Court nominations away from being able to litigate their way to liberty and good government were mistaken. Some of them are starting to figure that out. Politically, this is bad for the Trump administration — the “But, Gorsuch!” rationale has been deprived of some luster — and it leaves conservatives without any obvious avenue for meaningful advancement at the federal level. The Trump administration has never been very vigorous in the pursuit of any legislative agenda: Back when President Trump had Republican majorities in both houses of Congress to work with, he managed to accomplish approximately squat on building a wall or enacting broader immigration reform, on trade, or on much of anything else other than signing into law an utterly conventional Republican tax cut. And even if the administration were now able to rally the energy to pursue a legislative agenda, it should be obvious to all by now that the man whose name appeared on the cover of The Art of the Deal simply is not packing the gear to get what he wants out of Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell, for that matter.
If Trump loses in November, then conservatives will be in an entirely defensive position, which is where they seem to be most comfortable and certainly where they have in recent years been most effective. But if there is a President Joe Biden in January, Republicans are likely to have, at best, a small Senate majority with which to try to contain him. The wily Senator McConnell has shown himself at times to be pretty good at fly-by-wire government from the Russell Building, but there is only so much he can do. Absent some very unlikely turn of events, conservatives are not going to be in a position to do much in Washington for years, unless they can figure out some way to operate without relying on the dull instrument that is the Republican Party. If the years 2017–2020 are not remembered as a time of squandered opportunity, they will be remembered as something worse.
There is something that conservatives might think about doing the next time they find themselves somewhere in the vicinity of political power: show up.
If a Republican president, a Republican House, and a Republican Senate cannot produce an immigration-reform agenda and get it through a Congress they control while they control it, then the best they will get is a desultory series of half-baked executive orders that will be offered up with a prayer that the Supreme Court will look kindly on them. How’s that working out, conservatives?
It isn’t good enough.
Or consider the issue of trade. There certainly were shortcomings with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including the excessive secrecy with which negotiations were conducted, but the basic architecture of the thing — an Asia-Pacific trade bloc excluding China in which the United States would by necessity play the leading role — was sound. It was so sound, in fact, that the Trump administration has considered trying to get back on board with what is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But it is very difficult to unscramble an egg.
The World Trade Organization is in need of reform. That project is of vital interest to the United States. And there is an opening at the top as the WTO seeks a new director general. Peter Mandelson, a British politician and former European commissioner for trade, wants the job and makes a compelling case for reform. (It is unlikely that the current Conservative government in the United Kingdom will nominate a former Labour leader.) Mexico would like to install economist and diplomat Jesús Seade Kuri in the job. China’s preferred candidate is said to be Amina Mohamed, the former foreign minister of Kenya. If the Trump administration has a candidate and a compelling case for that candidate, it is keeping awfully quiet about it. Maybe it’s another one of those 10-D chess strategies we’re always hearing about.
What we should have learned from the Trump administration’s daft and destructive little trade war with China is that we cannot bully our way into success with tariffs. The U.S. balance of trade in the month of January 2017, when Trump took office, was –$65.6 billion, and in January of 2020 it was –$65.5 billion. (The so-called trade deficit is the wrong metric, but it is the one the president has chosen.) Total U.S. exports were lower in 2019 than they were in 2018.
The WTO rules suffer from some of the same shortcomings that NAFTA did, including outdated treatment of services and digital commerce. There is no country in this world that stands to benefit from modernizing the WTO more than the United States. And we would be far better off if the United States were setting the agenda at the WTO rather than responding to the initiatives of Beijing or Brussels.
Pick your priority, and the story is too often the same: Carping about the Belgians’ annual defense expenditure is not the same thing as exercising leadership at NATO — or in the world. Dashing off an executive order here and there is not the same thing as exercising leadership at home. Conservative reform is going to be long, slow, tedious, unsexy, thankless work, because responsible governance takes long, slow, tedious, unsexy, thankless work. The people who have spent years trying to convince you that winning presidential elections will get it done have misled you. Ask yourself why they did that.
One guy in the Oval Office can blow up a trade deal or pull the United States out of a multinational organization. But one guy in the Oval Office cannot build the institutions, develop the policies, and wrangle the coalitions necessary to actually make good things happen. The WTO is one of Chesterton’s fences, too, and so is NATO, and so is the hated United Nations. We can work to reform those. We can walk away from them, if warranted. We can try to build new institutions. But we should never forget to ask: Compared to what? What is Plan B? Because tantrums do not get much done, and institutions matter. The more conservatism becomes a self-conscious counterculture, the less able conservatives actually are to effectively pursue real reform.
We are not going to magic our way out of this mess with executive orders and Supreme Court challenges. We have to show up.