As 2018 ends, President Trump has the support of nearly all conservative voters. Together with congressional Republicans, he has delivered some significant domestic-policy victories for conservatives. But his political coalition, which won him a precarious electoral majority in 2016, is shrinking. As a result there may not be many more victories, and the ones already won are in danger of being evanescent.
Those victories include the confirmation of two conservative Supreme Court justices, one of whom is better grounded in originalist jurisprudence than the justice he replaced and is expected as a result to contribute to rulings that conservatives generally like better. We probably have a more conservative bloc of five justices than ever before in the modern history of the Court or of conservatism. The president has also nominated, and the Republican Senate confirmed, an impressive group of conservative judges to the appellate courts. Because Republicans expanded their Senate majority in the midterm elections, conservatives will continue to be confirmed to the federal bench.
Republicans also enacted a tax bill that included several longstanding conservative goals: a reduction in corporate taxes, tax relief for parents, the end of fines for people who do not buy health insurance, and a change in the tax code that makes residents of high-tax states bear more of the burden of those taxes and other Americans bear less.
The Trump administration has also withdrawn some regulations, softened others, and refrained from imposing new regulations at the pace of its predecessors. The Clean Power Plan is no more. Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education is pulling back from encouraging college campuses to regulate speech and to stack the deck against students and professors accused of sexual misconduct. The administration has granted religious employers exemptions from the Obama administration’s mandate that most employers provide insurance covering contraceptives, including contraceptives that may cause the death of embryos.
The vast majority of conservatives have also applauded some more symbolic steps taken by the administration, such as its move of our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and its planned withdrawal from the non-binding Paris climate accord.
During the campaign, many conservatives had doubts about whether Trump, who had a longer history as a liberal than as a conservative, would govern from the right. In office, though, he has largely deferred to a party that has grown increasingly conservative over time. Allaying earlier doubts has earned him his present degree of support from conservatives.
Trade policy has been the great exception to this deference. Many conservatives, especially economically minded ones, disagreed with Trump on that issue and hoped that he would not follow through on his views — as he has not followed through on his occasional endorsements over the last three years of gun regulations, a higher minimum wage, and so forth. His views on trade are, however, both strong and longstanding, and he has acted on them: placing tariffs on solar panels, on steel and aluminum, and on imports from China.
The results of these policies have yet to be determined. They seem to have contributed to the decline of stocks during 2018. Some companies are benefiting from the tariffs, but many more companies are paying higher prices for inputs because of them, and still other companies now face retaliatory tariffs when trying to export. Trump has gotten Canada to agree to allow more American dairy exports; in what some people will consider an accomplishment, he has gotten Mexico to agree to impose higher minimum wages on its auto industry. Negotiations with China have been listless, in part because Trump’s officials have not put forward specific demands.
The economy has performed well enough to quiet the complaints. The administration takes credit for that performance, and gets some from voters. Some supporters of the tax cut predicted great benefits from it that were premised on the idea that cutting the corporate tax rate would lead to an investment boom; so far, there has been only a modest increase. There is no evidence yet that the economy’s growth potential has risen. But the increased incentive to invest in the U.S. could have a positive longer-term effect.
Those are the major policy accomplishments. (At press time a more modest one looked likely to happen: a slight shift in the federal criminal-justice system to be more lenient.) There is also work left undone. The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare failed. Congress did, however, repeal two parts of the law (the fines and the Medicare rationing board), and the administration has tried to loosen some of the regulations included in the law. Infrastructure legislation, an alleged administration priority, has gone nowhere.
Trump’s appointees have changed some administrative practices with respect to immigration, but the president has barely tried to win any changes to immigration policy from Congress. There has been no significant progress in building a wall on our southern border, employers are not required to check the legal status of new hires, and our admittance policy remains oriented toward reunifying extended families rather than recruiting skilled workers.
The administration temporarily presided over a “zero tolerance” policy at the Mexican border that resulted in the separation of parents from their children. Many conservatives, even some who are not well disposed toward the president, have offered rationalizations and excuses for this policy. But it remains the case that, while previous administrations had rejected it because it would lead to a humanitarian nightmare, this one opted for it in full knowledge of the likely results, many of its top officials defended those results because they would deter illegal immigration, and the policy was implemented in a chaotic fashion that exacerbated its costs. It is the worst thing the president has done.
The many unusual features of the Trump presidency have tended to keep conservatives from using normal criteria for evaluating this record. The minority of conservatives who detest Trump are quick to attribute the failures to him and say that any other Republican president would have had the same achievements (if they credit the achievements at all). Progressives did not turn up their noses at President Obama’s Medicaid expansion on the ground that Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing if the Democrats had nominated her in 2008.
The more numerous band of pro-Trump conservatives often attribute the failures instead to congressional Republicans. They assume that other Republicans would not have racked up the same victories — suggesting, for example, that another Republican president would have dropped the Kavanaugh nomination under fire, never mind that two of Kavanaugh’s most important supporters in the end were George W. Bush and Susan Collins. And they exaggerate the successes and minimize the disappointments by saying that everything would have been worse had Clinton won the 2016 election. If conservatives had taken this approach in 1990, they would have shrugged off George H. W. Bush’s tax increase because it would have been even worse if Michael Dukakis had beaten him.
If we guard against both of these distortions of perspective, we see that Republicans under Trump have made some real but modest domestic-policy accomplishments. By comparison, President Obama’s first two years delivered much larger gains for progressives: Obamacare; the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law; an end to the ban on military service by openly gay people; new tobacco regulations; and two liberal appointments to the Supreme Court. Of course, Obama had larger congressional majorities than Trump and, unlike Trump, had won the popular vote by a large margin.
But the comparative narrowness of the Republican coalition is something that should concern conservatives rather than being taken as a given — especially since the midterm elections suggest that the coalition is shedding upper-middle-class voters faster than it is gaining lower-middle-class ones.
When people draw parallels between President Donald Trump and his predecessor Bill Clinton, they chiefly have in mind their character defects and resulting scandals. In both cases, a growing economy and tribal emotions made the president’s party rally behind him notwithstanding the accusations. In both cases, too, the president’s partisans were so distracted by the controversies of the day that they mostly did not notice that they were not getting many of their policy goals accomplished.
And with the Republican coalition shrinking and the economy more likely to weaken than strengthen, for conservatives this may be as good as it gets for a while.