The Hazards of the Trump Transition

The media is in full cry that Trump’s transition is in complete chaos and “disarray.” More proof, it is supposed, that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, and is in over his head.

Hmm. Seems to me we’ve heard this kind of thing before. Oh yeah, this is what the media screamed about Ronald Reagan, who departed for his Santa Barbara ranch right after the 1980 election, to the horror of the media. Here’s my account from The Age of Reagan:

Reagan felt no need to step into the spotlight, and allowed Ed Meese or a transition team spokesman to announce most of his cabinet selections while he remained in seclusion at home or up at the ranch.   This gave rise to the first news stories that Reagan was “out of touch” with his own government, establishing a theme about Reagan that continues to this day. “Reagan on the Sidelines: Reagan Often Seems Remote From Administration-Shaping Process” the Washington Post reported in mid-December. The Post thought it odd that Reagan would be chopping wood at his ranch the same day his secretary of state was publicly announced. This led naturally to a flurry of official denials and explanations from Reagan’s senior staff that kept the story alive for another news cycle, even though the original story was not news at all, but a “media analysis,” that is, journalistic opinion disguised as news coverage. “Reagan ‘Is Really Running Things,’ Meese Tells Press,” read a Post headline the next day. A week later, the theme ran again. “Meese Insists Reagan Isn’t Hiding Out” said the Post headline on December 29.

Two scholars later concluded in Presidential Studies Quarterly that “the Reagan transition was the most carefully planned and effective in American political history.” So ignore the media braying, and remember the famous William Goldman quote about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Transitions are always chaotic. It’s the nature of the thing. The real hazard for the Trump transition is that in the necessary haste to put together a functioning government in a short period of time, they’ll simply default to a lot of establishment Republicans—essentially a re-run of the George W. Bush administration. In this regard, it is worth recalling something Jimmy Carter’s chief campaign strategist, Hamilton Jordon, told a reporter right after the 1976 election: “This government is going to be run by people you’ve never heard of. If Cyrus Vance were named Secretary of State and Zbigniew Brzezinski head of National Security in the Carter administration, then I would say we failed, and I would quit. But that’s not going to happen.”

But Vance and Brzezinski are exactly what happened, and Jordan didn’t quit. If there’s a basic rule of thumb behind why Washington is the swamp that everyone wants drained, it’s this: “Washington Always Wins.” The only way to have a chance to break this rule is to appoint to senior positions truly new and outside people (like Larry Arnn for secretary of education). Let’s hope Trump doesn’t repeat Carter’s mistake of defaulting to the usual roster of DC-based establishment Republicans. Trump’s announcement that he wants to exclude lobbyists from the whole scene is a good one, even if no doubt unwise in some individual cases. The media braying about Trump’s transition is part of the hive-like mentality of DC that desperately hopes right now for what it regards as merely a normal GOP administration, meaning an accommodationist administration. As Nancy Reagan would say, “Just say No.”

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