The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Longtime NR Friends John Bolton and Larry Kudlow Head to the White House

This will be the last Jim-written Jolt until April 2. Theodore Kupfer will be filling in next week.

Good Luck, John Bolton!

My reaction to new National Security adviser John Bolton is a bit like the one for new director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow. These are great guys with long histories of standing up for conservative principles, longtime friends of National Review, who impressed me in our brief interactions at NR events and cable news green rooms over the years. Of course, for a lot of experienced political pros so far, working the Trump White House proved stressful, complicated, frustrating, and a mixed bag. Trump chafes at any advisers who he feels are trying to fence him in; he changes his mind quickly and without warning. Disagree with him enough or make decisions he doesn’t like and he’ll start mocking you on Twitter like with Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions.

Good luck, fellas. If the president heeds your advice, the country will probably be better off.

Hey, Remember That Booming Stock Market? Good Times, Good Times. . .

China’s getting ready to retaliate for the new tariffs announced by the Trump administration.

China’s commerce ministry proposed a list of 128 U.S. products as potential retaliation targets, according to a statement on its website posted Friday morning.

The U.S. goods, which had an import value of $3 billion in 2017, include wine, fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts, steel pipes, modified ethanol, and ginseng, the ministry said. Those products could see a 15 percent duty, while a 25 percent tariff could be imposed on U.S. pork and recycled aluminium goods, according to the statement.

After riding high for more than a year, Wall Street is suddenly extremely nervous:

“Antitrade policies, particularly tariffs, act like a tax on consumers and business by raising the cost of trade. By creating uncertainty, they also weigh on asset valuations, which could weaken households’ ability to sustain spending, and they likely reduce the incentive for business to invest,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, in a note to clients.

“For now, we are forced to say that we will have to wait and assess the response of our trading partners and the reaction of financial markets before drawing any firm conclusions for the U.S. outlook,” he said Gapen.

Some key groups on the right are ready to tear their hair our, as the tax cuts just helped millions of Americans, but now the tariffs could move us backward.

Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips, trying to warn the administration: “No matter their intention, tariffs are regressive policies that leave American consumers, workers and businesses bearing the costs of higher prices. What’s more, tariffs lead to fewer jobs and a weaker economy. These tariffs will soon undermine the bold tax reform agenda advanced by this administration. Leaders in Washington should be focused on policies that remove barriers to opportunity, not create them.”

A Presidential Skill at ‘Driving a Media Agenda’. . . To What End?

Howard Kurtz and Ross Douthat are starting to talk past each other; Kurtz writes this morning, “Trump dominated TV news because he knows how to drive a media agenda, and because he did hundreds and hundreds of interviews.”

At a time when it was difficult for shows (including mine) to get many sitdowns with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and especially Jeb Bush — and when they were cautious when they did appear — Trump did all the channels even when he knew he was going to get beat up. He did Sunday shows, morning shows, nighttime shows and cable shows (including on CNN and MSNBC).

Correct. Trump is really good at “driving a media agenda.” He takes bold, beyond-the-Overton-window positions; he gets combative in interviews, he insults critics, he insists solutions are simple and that only a conspiracy of the malevolent and foolish stands in the way of enacting them. He proved in the 2016 campaign that he was completely unpredictable, giving out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number, reenacting a Ben Carson crime, mimicking Marco Rubio needing water. He turned the campaign into a show, with him as the protagonist.

It’s particularly understandable that Republican primary voters — a plurality, but a large one — looked at a figure on the right who could drive a media agenda and swooned. Few Republican figures since Reagan could make the media cover what he wanted them to cover. The dynamic during much of the Bush years was something like this:

White House Correspondent: Good morning. President Bush is scheduled to talk about No Child Left Behind and schools today, but the White House continues to find itself under a withering barrage of tough questions about those fired U.S. attorneys, the vice president’s ties to Halliburton, casualties in the Iraq War, abuses at Abu Gharib, and the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame. Sources in the White House describe the president and his advisors frustrated that the national conversation is so focused on scandals and investigations, instead of the president’s policy initiatives.

Anchor: Fascinating, John. Do you think the White House will be able to shift the conversation to education the way they want?

White House Correspondent: No, because at today’s White House briefing, I’m not going to ask any questions about education, I’m only going to ask about those fired U.S. attorneys, the vice president’s ties to Halliburton, casualties in the Iraq War, abuses at Abu Gharib, and the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame. . .

I used to joke that Bill Clinton was the only guy who could distract attention from a fundraising scandal by getting into a sex scandal. The Obama White House also benefited from the shrinking attention span of both the general public and the decision-makers for the news media. Yes, the Obama administration had bouts of bad coverage from the IRS scandal, the NSA revelations, Healthcare.gov crashing and burning, Benghazi, the VA scandal. (Certain stories, such as Fast and Furious, never seemed to become the national firestorm that they ought to have been.) But it never turned into a lasting national drumbeat, consecutive weeks and weeks of brutal coverage.

Trump figured out how to overload the system, generating so many headline-grabbing surprises, controversies and personnel changes that few if any really had the time to leave a lasting impression. Think about it, just during a couple months in the campaign, we saw Trump contending that a federal judge couldn’t rule fairly because “he’s a Mexican;” mock Carly Fiorina’s face; get into a war of words with a slain soldier’s father. Any one of those would have defined and politically destroyed a lesser-known figure. But as mentioned early this week, Trump began the campaign as one of the best-known figures in American life — on television all the time, staring out from magazine covers and books on the front table of Barnes & Noble, his line of apparel at Macy’s, etcetera. (Think about his cameos in movies; in each one, the director is betting that the audience will A. instantly recognize Trump and B. find it funny that he’s giving directions to the kid from Home Alone, etc.)

The problem is that agenda-driving is only one skill a president needs, and at some point, the exceptional ability to change the subject starts to interfere with a president’s ability to enact his agenda. Think about how Obama and the Democrats spent almost all of 2009 and a chunk of 2010 focused on what became Obamacare. But the amount of consistent focus — and presidential persuasion — needed to pass a legislative agenda is completely different from the amount needed to dominate a news cycle.

Every time it seems the president has zeroed in on an issue, and appears determined to see it through — guns and immigration are just the two latest examples — he moves on to something else. And Congress, which isn’t designed to respond swiftly to national events and the wishes of the White House even in the least distracted of circumstances, simply can’t keep up.

The constant whiplash of priorities is getting on lawmakers’ nerves.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “The attention span just seems to be. . . it’s a real problem.”

The hyperactive mind-set of the Oval Office has had the effect, whether by design or not, of quickly diverting attention from topics big or small. After a bout of attention on gun control in the wake of the Florida school massacre last month, Congress has seemingly moved on already. Before that, it was the plight of Dreamers facing deportation.

ADDENDUM: Like all of my colleagues, I have mixed feelings about the news that our Kevin Williamson will soon be departing to write for The Atlantic. Kevin’s been a brilliant writer, essayist, off-the-beaten-path reporter, and provocative thinker for National Review for a decade. It’s understandable he wants to move on to new challenges, and reach a new audience; my guess is that some Atlantic readers’ heads will explode in the coming months. I envy the talent of a lot of my colleagues; Kevin consistently ranked high in the “dang, I wish I had written that” score.

He’ll be missed, but we wish him well. Maybe we can think of him as part of Rich Lowry’s “coaching tree.”

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