The Corner

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On Rhetoric and Reality

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

I think all of Dan’s points below are well-stated and well-taken. I’d only add one quibble. He writes:

If you set aside [Trump’s] mouth and his Tweets and looked only backwards at his policy record and not inward at his character or forward at the risks he is sowing, you can make a case for Trump-on-paper as a pretty good conservative Republican president.

I could point to some policies — on trade, the recent budget, etc. — and even more attempted policies — the Muslim ban, the nuclear option for legislation — that at least some conservatives could argue subtract from this verdict. But on the whole, I think this is fair and certainly defensible. The president’s judicial appointments, deregulatory efforts, and the tax bill (at least on the corporate side) have been decisive wins (how much credit belongs to Congress is a different matter).

My quibble is with this fairly common hard distinction between Trump’s mouth and tweets on the one hand and his policies on the other. As many have argued, much of the president’s power is essentially rhetorical, the power of persuasion as Richard Neustadt put it. It’s clear that Dan would agree with me that much of the president’s rhetoric — whether tweeted or spoken — has been . . . unhelpful. As Rich conceded in his column, Trump is “repellent” to women and young voters. And that will certainly translate into policy setbacks in the future.

My quibble has to do with the policy impact of his rhetoric. From his jawboning of Carrier (which failed, by the way) to the president’s celebration of Sinclair Broadcasting and tirades against Amazon over the last 48 hours, the president has established a hard precedent that businesses and news organizations (and in some cases, foreign allies) must take into account president’s entirely personal preferences and psychological needs or potentially face dire consequences. The president’s outbursts may not have the force of law or regulation, but they cannot be wholly separated from the world of “policy” either.

I have zero confidence that a President Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would not take this precedent as a foundation to build upon if they were elected. There’s a tendency to discount the tweeting and taunting as little more than fan-service to Trump’s base and a kind of grist for Hannity’s mill entertainment. It is that, but it’s also more than that.

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