Opinion

Will the Deal-Making Pragmatist in Trump Surface in the White House?

Cautious optimism he'll be a better governing executive than he was a candidate

If traditional conservatives with actual experience weren't willing to ally themselves with candidate Donald Trump, there would be no such individuals whispering in his ear during the transition, writes Matt Lewis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For much of 2016, we focused on the schism in the Republican Party. Today, it is the Democrats who are in need of an autopsy. We always knew they had problems, too, but we figured that Hillary Clinton’s election would allow them to brush their issues under the proverbial rug. Instead, the rug caught fire, and the roof caved in.

Having publicly (and privately) wrestled with their problems for over a year, Republicans were better positioned to handle defeat. Instead, they were handed an unexpected gift at a party they hadn’t even been invited to. Meanwhile, having had little cause for introspection, Democrats are in shock and mourning over a sudden death in the family that came after having received a clean bill of health.

Still, Donald Trump’s surprise win creates challenges for Republicans. For example, he’s behind the eight ball in terms of his presidential transition. This is a small but significant detail; do you really think any preparations have been made for his inauguration, much less the inaugural balls? And there are bigger details to consider. It can take months to fill the thousands of bureaucratic slots needed to run the different governmental departments.

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And who will be picked to run such things? Loyalty and luck matter more in politics than they do in almost any other endeavor. This is nothing new. James Carville, Karl Rove, and David Axelrod are all brilliant political strategists, but they also bet on the right horse at the right time. Trump is an especially unorthodox candidate, and this rising populist tide will lift some pretty rickety boats to dizzying heights. Aside from the has-beens who are rumored to end up with plum Cabinet appointments in a Trump administration, there will be loyalists occupying senior staff positions who would never have made it there by climbing the slippery slope of politics and paying their dues to the establishment.

Call them sycophants if you will, but I believe that conservatives lucked out by not turning up their noses at Trump en masse. What if Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who recently took over Trump’s transition team from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had refused to join the Trump campaign? Today, movement conservatives wouldn’t have him on the inside helping guide Trump. What if campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (the person I’m rooting for to serve as press secretary — and to help ditch the antiquated practice of holding daily briefings), once a Ted Cruz loyalist, had refused to join Trump’s team? And what if RNC Chairman Reince Priebus hadn’t supported the nominee? Today, Priebus is the incoming White House chief of staff. (Those who think he is too much of an establishment guy would do well to remember that James Baker effectively served Ronald Reagan in the same capacity).

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If no traditional conservatives with actual experience were willing to ally themselves with Trump, then there would be no such individuals whispering in his ear today.

I remain cautiously optimistic — in part because of the Pence/Conway/Priebus inclusion — but also because Trump has mostly behaved in a statesmanlike manner for the last several weeks. The hope is that Trump will be a better governing executive than he was a candidate. He could end up nominating some solid conservatives for the Supreme Court (looking at you, Ted Cruz!), which would be controversial to many but also a huge deliverable for his conservative backers. He may also be able to negotiate a significant bipartisan effort on infrastructure, which would be no small feat.

President Trump will have the option of making big changes on the first day of his term, should he so choose. So much of what Obama “accomplished” was unilateral. In some cases, legislation was passed on a party-line vote using multiple legislative maneuvers, which would be sticky to undo. In other cases, existing executive orders could be immediately undone.

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While President Trump can, and likely will, dramatically change the trajectory of this nation, I also expect him to govern in a manner that is significantly more bipartisan and popular than many could imagine. Let’s take, for example, Trump’s recent comments to The Wall Street Journal about retaining the popular provisions in Obamacare.

To many, this was surprising; after all, they say that he promised to “repeal and replace.” This could mean different things to different people, and I am not at all surprised by his flexibility. Trump has always been a populist, not a conservative, free-market ideologue. Why would the guy who refuses to tackle entitlement reforms (such as making Social Security sustainable by raising the retirement age) want return to the dark ages (when a pre-existing condition could be cause for denial of health insurance)?

It’s important to remember that Trump’s base is composed of working-class Americans who, to borrow an incoherent phrase, want to keep the government out of their Social Security. They voted for a moderate New York Republican who is a deal-maker.

To be sure, if you repeal the individual mandate but keep provisions such as pre-existing conditions, you risk creating adverse selection — healthy people would opt out of the system and sick people would opt in. If that happens, the whole thing collapses. There are ways to make this remodel of Obamacare work, and it will be up to congressional Republicans and President Trump to accept and navigate that challenge. There is one thing I can almost guarantee: This will not be a purely free-market conservative fix.

Donald Trump might very well turn out to be a pragmatist who is more than willing to cut deals and get things done. In an era where we have gotten used to politicians nobly standing on principle, with the byproduct being stasis and gridlock, I suspect Trump might be more popular — at least initially — than many imagine. But then again, Donald Trump has always surprised his critics. His willingness to compromise and cross party lines to wheel and deal may be enough to talk Democrats down from the proverbial ledge.

Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and the author of “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis

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