There are roughly three schools of thought on the announcement that Larry Kudlow will replace the departing Gary Cohn as the head of the National Economic Council. The first, most common among liberals, is a dismissive sneer. Kudlow, they say, is an ideologue, a supply-sider zealot, a mere television personality who doesn’t even have a PhD. (Neither did Jeff Zients, Cohn’s predecessor in the Obama administration, who came out of the management consulting world. I do not recall many on the left worrying about his lack of credentials).
The second reaction, most common among establishment conservatives, is relief. Kudlow’s a supply sider! They exclaim. He has experience in government and the private sector! He believes in free trade and liberal immigration policies! What a terrific moderating influence to counteract the protectionists and immigration restrictionists in the administration!
The third view, which I share, is best summed up by the hashtag #LOLNothingMatters.
The president has never listened much to his advisers, and according to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, he is starting to “grow” out of whatever small changes he displayed in that direction. Of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s firing she wrote, “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why – he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it…” she wrote on Twitter a few days ago. “So now he is basically saying ’I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’” She notes that this is “part of why he is less able to be swayed” and that increasingly it is the campaign folks who don’t fit in government work who form whatever brain trust President Trump can be said to rely on.
So how much does it matter whether Kudlow has good or bad ideas on economic policy? Is the fate of financial reform proposals likely to hinge on whether Kudlow can give the president a PhD-level seminar on the Basel III Tier I Capital requirements? Or our trade policy on whether he can walk Trump through Paul Krugman’s Nobel-prizewinning work on trade theory?
Of course not. Over the course of both the campaign and the administration, the president has shown himself quite uninterested in either policy detail or abstruse technical debates. For good or for ill, Trump is a man who has always relied primarily on his own instincts. That is how we can expect matters to proceed for at least the next three years.
The skills that Kudlow showed in the past — putting on a compelling show for people who are under no obligation to listen and explaining his ideas clearly and quickly in a very short time frame — seem at least as useful in his new job, and probably more so. But given his contempt for elites, it seems unlikely that Trump would be more prone to listen to Kudlow if he had a PhD. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Trump would be more prone to listen to Kudlow if he had a direct message from God written on the walls of the Oval Office. That’s just not who Trump is.
And even if all this weren’t the case, Trump would like to win reelection. He will probably try to follow the playbook from the last one: more culture war symbolism and attacks on cosmopolitan, internationalist elites. Admittedly, special elections are giving a pretty grim referendum on these tactics. Still, Trump seems unlikely to try a “pivot to the Brookings Institution”, which would cost him his base without gaining him any “strange new respect” from the wonketariat. He’s far more likely to double down.
So Democrats are right: Kudlow isn’t necessarily the traditional figure you’d see in this job, though neither is Trump. And Republicans are right too: At this moment, Kudlow was probably the best they had a right to expect. But both groups are wrong if they expect his appointment to matter much.