In the late fall of 1995, the columnist Ben Wattenberg—on tour to promote a new book—received a phone call from an admiring reader. The reader was President Bill Clinton. Over the next hour, Clinton praised Wattenberg’s work as the most accurate criticism of his administration to date.
In his syndicated column to be published Thursday, Mr. Wattenberg quotes Mr. Clinton as saying that he was initially too interested in the “legislative scorecard, rather than in philosophy,” focusing like a prime minister on shepherding his party’s legislation, instead of using the bully pulpit like a chief executive. The column says Mr. Clinton said he was “so anxious to fix the economy” that he “changed philosophically and missed the boat.”
With those mistakes, Clinton had “‘lost the language’ of the moderate new Democratic thinking that helped to elect him in 1992.”
(Those quotations and that summary come from a New York Times story about the call. I couldn’t find the Wattenberg column itself online.)
Clinton’s conversation with Wattenberg occurred during a long process of self-examination and redirection after the Democratic party’s bad defeats in the 1994 elections. That process would ultimately culminate in a 1996 State of the Union address that declared, “The era of big government is over.” Election year 1996 would see Clinton triangulate both against congressional Republicans perceived as too eager to cut taxes for the rich and congressional Democrats perceived as too narrowly attentive to the minorities and the poor. Clinton would uphold the values of the middle class—school uniforms for children in poor schools—and champion their concerns: Medicare, Medicaid, the economy, and the environment. (These concerns were summed up by the acronym “MMEE,” pronounced “Em Em Ee Ee” on television and “Meeee” at cynical staff meetings.)
Triangulation disgusted Democratic liberals, but it did the job: Clinton decisively won re-election in 1996, beat back impeachment in 1998-99, and left office a popular, if not always respected, president. Could President Trump perform an analogous maneuver?
Much comment on the administration seems to assume Trump has nowhere to go but further down. He’s wounded, yes—but still dangerous, maybe more dangerous than ever. He’s at least as capable of destroying the independence and integrity of the U.S. intelligence community as that community’s revelations are to destroy him.
Trump may not be as self-critical or as well-informed as Bill Clinton, but the survivor of multiple brushes with bankruptcy has certainly proven himself a canny survivor with a shrewd awareness of his opponents’ weaknesses. How much information is needed to notice that stripping Medicaid from upwards of 10 million people will prove politically challenging? Candidate Trump ceaselessly promised to protect existing health-care guarantees. Surely President Trump remembers why Candidate Trump did it?
Candidate Trump positioned himself as a different kind of Republican, far removed from party’s former identity and policies.
He denigrated previous party leaders in Congress and the executive branch. He bent even Fox News to his will. He beat them all. He owed them little or nothing. Then, in office—he capitulated. He accepted Paul Ryan’s benefits-stripping healthcare plan as his own first priority—and promptly suffered a worse beating than he ever inflicted. Isn’t there a lesson here?
Today’s wisdom is that Trump can’t change. “The president is also a 70-year-old billionaire who has been far too rich — for far too long — to know how to adjust his habits to other people’s needs,” writes New York’s Eric Levitz. And it’s surely true that he lacks many of the resources to execute Clinton-style triangulation. His White House lacks policy expertise, to put it mildly. His communications operation has been thrust onto the seemingly permanent defensive. His standing in the polls has fallen to the high 30s: Watergate-levels.
It remains always possible for a president to regain the initiative
But in politics as in war, “nothing is ever as good or as bad as the first reports of excited men would have it,” in the memorable words of Field Marshall Slim. Clinton was rescued in 1996 as much by the shifty gimmicks invented by his campaign guru Dick Morris as by the substantive policy agenda of the New Democrats.
I challenge all our schools to teach character education, to teach good values and good citizenship. And if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.
Trump’s goal is not to be a “successful president” in the usual sense of that term. It’s obvious by now that he doesn’t have much of a policy agenda. He has a personal agenda, and that agenda is going rather well. The Trump brand is thriving. His family is planning a second hotel in Washington, D.C. He is busily promoting his properties. He has paid little political price for violating his promises not to bring his children into government. And while the Kushner family’s hopes for a big payday deal with a Chinese bank have been balked for the time being, Trump still enjoys almost total ethical leeway within Congress, as my colleague McKay Coppins has nicely detailed.
Trump retains his grip on the Republican caucus in Congress and the all-important conservative media complex. He isn’t winning many legislative battles—but neither is he losing the battles that count most for him. His tax returns remain secret, and so for the most part do the details of his campaign’s Russian connections. As embarrassing as it is that the health bill collapsed, it would have been far worse for him politically had it passed.
It remains always possible for a president to regain the initiative. In Trump’s case, that initiative is found in battles over trade and immigration: the issues that won him the Republican nomination and that his base inside the party cares about most. He doesn’t even need to win. He just needs to be seen to fight.
Trump faces one hard practical test: Can he sustain sufficient enthusiasm within the Republican base to motivate turnout to keep Congress in Republican hands after 2018? If he fails, he will then face lethal dangers: meaningful investigation, backed by subpoenas. If he succeeds, he sustains the culture of impunity on which his administration is built. Until then, his net worth is surely rising faster than his polls are dropping. The traditional media may dismiss the administration’s fantastic and false claims of victimization by Obama administration holdovers—but Trump’s voters will believe, and believe more passionately perhaps because of the traditional media’s dismissal.
Above all: There will be no shortage of ambitious figures in the conservative world ready to play the part of Trump’s Wattenberg. He’ll be calling, and he’ll be listening. Trump may be suffering, as the joke goes, the worst 100 days of any president since William Henry Harrison. His list of laws signed makes ludicrous reading: only 17 items including on March 31 (the final day of the 10th week of his administration) “An Act to name the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.”
But the resources of a determined president are great. Trump’s enablers are powerful. The institutions of American government and society—including the expectations of the American people themselves for integrity in government—continue to show themselves weaker than most would have ever dared fear before 2016. We’re not anywhere near the end of this story, and certainly in no position to predict whether that ending will be happy or grim.