Praise for Trump’s first year comes from more respectable quarters, however. Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best conservative writers out there, and is no one’s toady. Last month he praised Trump’s productive first year on policy:
Conservatives of various types have thus seen progress on their agenda in 2017. Economic conservatives got tax cuts and some deregulation. Legal conservatives got judicial appointments and an executive branch more mindful of the limits of its policymaking authority. Social conservatives also benefited from the judicial appointments and welcomed Trump’s policy of blocking international family-planning funding from going to organizations that promote or perform abortions.
Similarly, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway offered up hosannas to Trump in a Post Opinion column this week:
It took a while for Capitol Hill to get used to working with Trump, but by the end of the year, lawmakers had passed the largest corporate tax reform in U.S. history and secured tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans.
Businesses are responding to the deregulation and historic corporate tax reform by loosening purse strings and investing in plants, equipment and factories. Pepco, a power utility that serves the Mid-Atlantic region, just announced it’s lowering everyone’s electric bills as a result of the savings from corporate tax reform.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens also praised the new tax bill, arguing that the cut in corporate taxes would lead to “the equivalent of Canada’s entire gross domestic product” returning to the United States in the form of repatriated earnings.
As someone who saw the tax sausage being microwaved way too fast, I found these assessments very puzzling. Until I read this tweet from Scott Lincicome, a trade lawyer at the Cato Institute:
Interesting to see a lot of conservative culture warriors defend Trump's first year on policy grounds (taxes, judges, dereg, etc) and conservative wonks criticize it on cultural/institutional grounds
— Scott Lincicome (@scottlincicome) January 20, 2018
Lincicome’s deeper point: “The Trump Year’s policy accomplishments have been wildly oversold — but I wouldn’t expect the culture warriors to grok that nuance.”
The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that Lincicome is correct. This is not to say that social conservatives are wrong to think Trump has served them well. He has, particularly on judicial appointments. But praise for tax cuts and deregulation does not really come from conservative policy wonks.
On the tax cuts leading to massive repatriation, wonks and economists have already noted that this does not really have much of an economic effect. As for the overall tax bill, conservative tax experts are fans of the corporate tax cut but not much else. And the process was truly abysmal. As Peter Suderman wrote at Reason when the bill was passed:
The Republican bill, and the GOP’s evidence-free assertions about its likely budgetary effects, have all but ensured a future in which politicians do not feel obligated to even engage in the pretense of fiscal responsibility. Republicans complained endlessly about the opaque process by which Obamacare was passed. But now they have escalated the gimmick wars, and there may be no going back.
The same story can be told about deregulation. It’s not that it’s not happening. It’s that, as Bloomberg’s Alan Levin and Ari Natter reported last month, it is less than meets the eye:
While the president has succeeded in undoing some major environmental and financial industry rules, a Bloomberg News review of the administration’s list found almost a third of them actually were begun under earlier presidents. Others strain the definition of lessening the burden of regulation or were relatively inconsequential, the kind of actions government implements routinely.
“They are really undercutting their own credibility by putting out numbers that are not, quite frankly, very believable,” said Cary Coglianese, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is also director of the Penn Program on Regulation.
Politico’s Danny Vinik reported something similar over the weekend:
The vast majority of that $8.1 billion in [regulatory] savings came from the repeal of a single federal contracting rule. The dramatic sounding “22-to-1” [deregulation-to-regulation] statistic is an apples-and-oranges comparison, weighing all deregulatory actions against just a small subset of new rules. And much of the deregulation was done not by Trump himself, but with the help of Congress, which used an obscure law early in his term to repeal 14 late-term Obama regulations. …
So far, agencies haven’t found a ton of expensive rules to roll back.
As for foreign policy, well, you can take my word for it, or Tom Nichols’s, or Melvyn Leffler’s or Elizabeth Saunders’s. The conclusion is the same: The only aspect of foreign policy this president has excelled at has been the globalization of America’s cultural fissures. Which is another thing that likely pleases social conservatives but puts off actual foreign policy wonks.
All of this is consistent with assessments that Trump’s first year, even from a conservative perspective, has been pretty mediocre. What Trump has been great at is venting his spleen. When he does so on issues near and dear to social conservatives, they are understandably happy. And to some extent they should be: Trump has governed as the most conservative president in modern history. Beyond that base, however, no one is terribly impressed with the president’s first year in office.
Meanwhile, the moral price that social conservatives are paying for their fealty seems pretty high:
Evangelical leader Tony Perkins: President Trump gets a "mulligan" on an alleged affair because it was 10 years ago and "evangelicals understand what a second chance means" https://t.co/RqrhpHWI3l https://t.co/n2u7PhPNOB
— CNN (@CNN) January 24, 2018
This is normally the moment when the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts writes a conclusion. For today, however, I’ll outsource that to my colleague Michael Gerson:
The level of cynicism here is startling. Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves. It is a political maneuver indistinguishable from those performed by business or union lobbyists every day. Only seedier. You scratch my back, I’ll wink at dehumanization and Stormy Daniels. The gag reflex is entirely gone.
From a purely political perspective, the Trump evangelicals are out of their depth.