PALO ALTO, Calif.
Imagine a successful Trump presidency.
That is the assignment I gave myself this week as I met with research fellows at the Hoover Institution, a free-market think tank located here on Stanford University’s campus, and with Stanford professors. Set aside the initial stumbles and Washington angst, and imagine how Donald Trump might build on his unexpected electoral victory.
I was taken aback by the first response.
“Well, it’s sad,” a conservative expert on politics replied when I asked the question. “Because he could have done something groundbreaking.”
Could have? Past tense? Already?
Yes, this person replied. Trump took office with a unique opportunity to triangulate between the two parties. With Republicans he could have enacted tax reform and rolled back regulations. With Democrats he could have pushed through a giant infrastructure bill, dividing the Democratic coalition (trade unions from teachers unions, Midwesterners from coastal elites). Presto: a new working coalition.
But Trump’s first three weeks were so disastrous and toxic to the opposition that he has made it impossible for Democrats to cooperate. “With all the noise about crowd size, the complaints about the march, the executive order, the attacks on judges — how can [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer cooperate now?” he said. “He can’t.”
Undoubtedly the “resistance” has emerged far more quickly than anyone predicted. But surely, I thought, three weeks is a bit soon to say last rites over a 208-week presidency.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, a Never-Trump national security expert here, Kori Schake, agreed.
“I actually think there’s a strong optimistic case to be made,” she told me.
Government is so averse to risk, Schake argued, that many policies and processes have become “silted up.” Buying weapons takes too long and costs too much. Innovators stay away.
Trump complains about allies freeloading more rudely than did his predecessors, Schake noted, but the complaint isn’t new; maybe he can get somewhere. Similarly, he’s hardly the first president to promise in a campaign to help those left behind by trade; maybe he will be the one to do something about it.
“There’s a lot of stuff that needs fixing,” Schake said. “He’s going to break a lot of china, but there are opportunities to do things better.”
In practice, experts here such as Richard Epstein hope that means fewer regulations and lower taxes, which they say could spur investment — providing that the positive effects are not swamped by Trump-initiated trade wars or Trumpian interference in market decisions, such as telling companies where and how much to invest.
Overseas, the administration might seek stability via understandings with Russia and China. China could promise fairer access to its market for U.S. firms, less theft of intellectual property, maybe even more direct investment and job creation in the United States.
What would Trump give in return? Certainly an end to the annoying-to-China U.S. habit of talking about human rights and democracy. Smaller countries in the Pacific worry that he might give up a lot more.
“I think we are at risk of the president making a large number of high-octane bad deals,” Schake said. But setting “rules of the road for big-power behavior” has been a positive in past years and could be so again, she said.
Similarly, Russia might promise to withdraw gradually from eastern Ukraine, in return for a reduction of sanctions and America’s recognition that Ukraine would never be in NATO or America’s sphere of influence. Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would honor such a promise is another question.
In any case, you can see something like a best-case scenario taking place. I should make clear: I don’t mean best-case in the sense of good policy. Personally I would not favor reducing regulations that, for example, protect stream beds in coal country. I don’t think it’s responsible to postpone entitlement reform, as Trump vows to do. Nor do I think that a values-free foreign policy is likely to be sustainable in the long term.
But you could imagine all of this translating into a reasonable short-term value proposition to voters three years from now: economic growth without too much inflation (for the moment), global stability, lower taxes.
The question is whether the administration has the discipline and finesse to pull off these difficult balancing acts. Was the lost opportunity of the first 20 days based on a strategic decision to double down on us-vs.-them, or on whim and resentment? And if the latter, will it become a learning opportunity?
“It will all come down to whether people feel like things are getting better for them,” said Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina. “He could blunder into a successful presidency. It could also be a disaster.”
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