It seems clear that Donald Trump will end up with the most conservative Cabinet of any president in my lifetime. And yes, that includes Ronald Reagan (Steve will correct me if I’m wrong).
How did this happen? Maybe Trump, who never seemed all that conservative, has come to embrace conservatism nearly across the board.
But Steven Pearlstein, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, offers a different explanation:
Trump is not a Tea Party Republican. . .To the degree he does have policy instincts, they are more consistent with those of the pro-business New York Democrat he was than the right-wing avatar he pretended to be during the campaign. Most importantly, he has an insatiable need to be liked and respected. . . .
Don’t be fooled by Trump’s cabinet appointments. To the key positions — Treasury, State, Defense, chief of staff — he has appointed practical military leaders and business people like himself. The more radical and ideologically driven nominees for Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Justice and the EPA were made to reassure the Republican right that he really is one of them.
We shouldn’t underestimate the damage that these appointees will do over the next four years in dismantling the Obama legacy. But on the issues that rise to presidential attention — immigration, trade, taxes, infrastructure spending — Trump will opt for political expediency over ideological zealotry.
There’s precedent for a president operating in something like the manner Pearlstein describes. It is said that Richard Nixon adopted liberal policies on domestic issues — wage and price controls and racial quotas, for example — for the purposes of creating enough political capital to enable him to do what he wanted in foreign policy, his area of preoccupation.
Trump might similarly be prepared to adopt conservative policies on domestic issues for the purpose of keeping his base and his party happy enough to let him do what he wants on the matters he truly cares about.
What does Trump truly care about? Pearlstein says what Trump wants is “to demonstrate that he can make good on his promise to cut through the gridlock and get things done.” I would put it this way: Trump is determined to do a few big things to “make America great again.”
What things? A massive restoration of our infrastructure, probably. And definitely some big things on the world stage. Possibilities include crushing ISIS, reordering relations with Russia, and brokering a “peace” treaty between Israel and the Palestinians (though this doesn’t look like a priority in light of Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel). There are other possibilities I haven’t thought of, and perhaps some that haven’t yet occurred to Trump.
This account of why Trump has picked such a conservative Cabinet — to create political capital with which to pursue his real agenda — is consistent with the report, never confirmed as far as I know, of Trump’s attempt to persuade John Kasich to be his running mate. Supposedly, one of Trump’s sons told Kasich’s representative that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy. Asked what Trump would be in charge of, the son replied “making America great again.”
But the theory that Trump is largely indifferent about a wide range of policy issues and wants only to accomplish a few big things may sell the president-elect short. To write off the selection of Rep. Tom Price as throwing a bone to conservatives probably underestimates the extent to which Trump dislikes Obamacare. To write off the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education may underestimate Trump’s disgust with the state of public education and his affinity for school choice.
Right now, conservatives need not worry much about why Trump has appointed such a conservative Cabinet. The point is that he’s appointed one, and that it likely will help the GOP reverse the statist, hyper-liberal course President Obama has charted and imposed.