"George W. Bush, but racist." That's what Jonathan Chait of New York magazine says President Donald Trump is turning into as he abandons some of his more idiosyncratic campaign positions and starts listening to Republican Party regulars who favor foreign wars and tax cuts for the rich.
This comparison is unfair — to George W. Bush, who accomplished things, whether you liked those things or not.
I agree with Chait that Trump is failing to promote and advance a policy agenda of his own. But the likely result is that he will do very little, not that he will achieve what a conventional Republican president would achieve if given a Republican Congress to work with.
I think Trump is so inept that he will be unable to get a major tax cut out of a Republican Congress. And I certainly hope I am right that he is too lazy to start a ground war.
If Trump does not get us all killed, I expect his presidency will look surprisingly unimportant in retrospect.
Trump's weaknesses will usually lead to nothing happening
Most policy issues present Trump with three possible policy actions: A standard Republican thing, a quirky "Trumpist" thing, or nothing. In most areas, the smart money should be on "nothing."
In support of his Trump-as-Bush hypothesis, Chait writes:
"Trump's pledge not to cut Medicaid while replacing Obamacare with a terrific plan that would include 'insurance for everybody,' with better coverage than they have now, turned into endorsement of a conventional Republican plan that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and throw tens of millions of people off their insurance."
Yes, but remember where this landed: with Congress passing nothing. The implosion of the American Health Care Act has left Trump with Barack Obama's healthcare policy, not George Bush's. Trump healthcare policy change: nothing.
Let's look where else this president is going nowhere fast.
Since the president can't decide whether to acknowledge healthcare reform is dead, tax reform is now supposed to get pushed back to make space for another doomed try on healthcare, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acknowledging that the administration's August goal for tax changes will be missed.
Republicans in Congress still have no agreement for a vision on taxes, and the White House doesn't have a plan of its own. Trump has mused about the possibility of working with Democrats on taxes, but they'll be reluctant to hand him any victories and have settled on the line that they can't change the tax code until we've seen Trump's tax returns, because otherwise we won't know whether the deal is designed to benefit him.
Tax reform dies for all sorts of good reasons, and this administration looks even less organized on the issue than those that have failed to reform the tax code in the past. My bet on a Trump tax legacy: nothing.
Last month, the White House circulated a Trumpist "skinny budget," with ideas like sharply cutting spending on the National Institutes of Health and the State Department to fund military expansion and construction of a border wall. Congress is preparing to summarily ignore this budget.
But it is not going to take what you might call a "conventional Republican" approach either, like, say, cutting food stamps to fund military expansion.
The spending bill to keep the government open past April 28 will need to get 60 votes in the Senate, which means it will need Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's approval, which most likely means an increase in domestic spending to go along with any increase in military spending, certainty for threatened Obamacare subsidies, and little-to-no money for a border wall.
Of course, Trump could veto such a spending bill, but the news website Axios reports that the White House is in "no mood" for the government shutdown that would ensue. Likely federal spending outlook: nothing terribly different from if Hillary Clinton had won.
Trump is backing off his heated trade rhetoric, says China is not a currency manipulator, and even says he's willing to let China off easy on trade if it is helpful with North Korea. A Trumpist remaking of American trade policy is looking less and less likely.
But what would a "conventional Republican" trade policy look like? Probably the pursuit of multilateral trade agreements that Republican presidents used to favor until they became associated with Obama.
Do you really think Trump will negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU? It seems a lot more likely to me that he will do nothing.
In his first 100 days, Trump has softened toward China, somewhat hardened toward Russia, flip-flopped on Syrian President Bashar Assad, and re-endorsed NATO. These shifts do as much to put him in line with Obama as with Bush.
It's possible that won't stay true. Trump's national security adviser is, according to a report from Eli Lake at Bloomberg, developing a plan for tens of thousands of ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria.
As Chait writes, such an invasion would constitute a remarkable, Bush-like turn toward neoconservatism, if Trump were actually to pursue it. But I am skeptical that he will do so.
Trump has, so far, not demonstrated the attention span for a ground war. A man who figured out it was best to rent his name and let other people deal with the messy business of actual high-rise construction will probably get the logic of launching the occasional airstrike and leaving most of the ground fighting to proxy forces.
I might be wrong — and future external events could push Trump into a ground war somewhere, just as they could with any other president. But so far, the president's main foreign-policy departures from Obama are (1) offending a bunch of foreign leaders, and (2) launching one airstrike against Assad. This looks more like "nothing" than "neocon" to me.
The limited areas where Trump means change
Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court definitely mattered. This appointment was conventional but not a surprise or a breach of any Trumpist promises. Trump issued an explicit list of whom he might appoint to the court before being elected, and the list was vetted to please conventional conservatives.
With Trump, it's always a good idea to get it in writing, and they did.
The other obvious place where Trump already matters is immigration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has clearly stepped up enforcement, and some people who would have been held harmless under Obama are being deported.
Is this a "conventional Republican" policy course? Mitt Romney probably would have done something similar, but there are a lot of establishment Republicans in Washington who would prefer a more lax immigration policy.
Trump's Justice Department may have significant effects, by changing its emphasis in overseeing police departments and voting rights. The latter moves will be in line with "conventional Republicanism"; the former ones run counter to incipient Republican enthusiasm for criminal justice reform, which Trump and his attorney general reject.
Trump's other significant policy accomplishments so far consist mostly of laws he has signed under the Congressional Review Act. This law allows Congress to overturn, by simple majority, regulations issued late in a departing president's administration.
These laws will affect the cleanliness of streams near coal mines, and will allow Internet Service Providers to sell user data — though, from the breathless reaction, you might not realize they're reversing regulations that either were not yet effective or only recently became effective. That is, all these fearsome laws have done is to restore the Obama-era status quo, circa 2015.
Bigger reversals of Obama-era policies that Trump might hope to do with his executive power — like neuter Dodd-Frank and the Clean Power Plan — will require him to get past bureaucratic and judicial roadblocks. I wouldn't bet on Trump succeeding bigly in these areas soon.
A presidency does not have to be important
The American Health Care Act failed for a fundamental reason: Like a lot of conventional Republican ideas, it was very unpopular.
The thumbnail version of the AHCA was that it cut Medicaid to pay for tax cuts for the rich. It would take a president with a lot of political capital, political skill, and ideological commitment to shove something like that through Congress.
Trump has none of those three, a problem that will repeat with other unpopular, conventional Republican policies he might try to pass.
Trump's lack of his own unique policy vision, plus his lack of the resources and conviction he would need to impose a conventional Republican policy vision, will add up to his doing little beyond what he must do to keep the lights on: sign spending bills, raise the debt limit, respond to foreign crises, appear at the Easter Egg Roll.
Not all presidents have a major legacy. Warren Harding wasn't important; neither was Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.
I remain worried that a foreign crisis will be foisted on Trump and that his mishandling of it will get us all killed in a nuclear war. If that happens, his presidency will be very important.
But if it doesn't, I don't see Trump posting a lot of "wins." I see him making Carter look dynamic and accomplished by comparison.
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