Contrary to what many predicted, President Trump’s end-of-year accomplishment list isn’t that skimpy.
That’s an analytical observation. For many, particularly liberals and Democrats, Trump’s first year hasn’t been merely bad. It’s a great evil, a grievous wound to the American body politic.
But even that is a kind of partisan tribute to what’s been accomplished on his watch: a record number of judicial appointments, including a Supreme Court justice; the defeat of Islamic State; repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate; tax reform; and major rollbacks of various regulations, from arctic drilling to net neutrality.
It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Trump is the most unpopular first-year president in American history, for reasons far beyond mere bad press.
Still, among conservatives, the tally of “wins” has sparked some intramural debates. The most prominent one is how Trump skeptics and avowed Never Trumpers should respond to those wins. For writers such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and the Atlantic’s David Frum, the only legitimate response is either to ignore these successes or denigrate them, lest people lose sight of the threat Trump poses to the country. Others, including myself, argue instead that one needn’t deny the merits of a policy victory simply because the president might get credit for it.
This debate skips over the larger question of whether these victories happened because of Trump or despite him.
On one level, the president always gets the credit — or blame — for anything that happens on his watch. But Trump poses a challenge to such superficial scorekeeping. No president in American history has rejected Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” motto as vehemently or consistently as this one. He never accepts responsibility for his own mistakes, never mind those of his administration or party. When American troops die, the commander in chief blames “the generals.” When legislation fails, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the “establishment” are at fault.
Trump boosters agree. Conservative writer Roger Simon argues that all “remaining Never Trumpers” must apologize for being wrong about the president. He chalks up Trump’s “astoundingly successful” first year to the fact the president is a “quick study.”
But what evidence is there that Trump has actually learned the art of presidential management?
Aside from the mandatory flattery required of Republican elected officials, there’s remarkably little testimony that Trump has involved himself in the process of governing. Tax reform was carried across the finish line by the GOP congressional leadership. Net neutrality was repealed by independent Republicans at the Federal Communications Commission.
Foreign policy is a more mixed bag. If the president deserves credit for the defeat of Islamic State, it’s because he let “the generals” do their thing. On the other hand, credit (or blame) for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris accord on climate change certainly goes to him.
In general, it seems to me that Trump’s success (such as it is) is less attributable to sudden mastery of the issues than to staying out of the way of rank-and-file Republican policymakers, activists and bureaucrats.
For instance, the task of selecting judicial appointees, starting with Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, has largely been outsourced to the Federalist Society. When the president revealed his new national security strategy last week, his speech — the usual campaign blather — had only a passing resemblance to the underlying document. The tax bill is clearly more in line with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ideology than candidate Trump’s supposed populism. As for a counter example: When Trump was “hands-on” with Obamacare repeal, he often revealed he didn’t even know what was in the legislation.
In 2016, some conservatives argued that Republicans should vote as if we live in a parliamentary democracy, electing a party, not a person. Trump’s 3,000 political appointees would be better than Hillary Clinton’s. That argument had its flaws, not least that voters tend not to compartmentalize that way — which is why the GOP faces a potential bloodbath in the 2018 midterms.
But there’s merit to it as well. To listen to Trump’s cheerleaders, the biggest obstacle to conservative victories is the party establishment, when in reality it looks more like it’s running the show.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.