Trump Edges Toward a Conventional Republican Approach, at Least on Policy
Posted February 19, 2018 5:48 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — If they squint hard enough, Republicans looking at President Donald Trump can almost see George W. Bush.
Government spending and the debt are soaring, provoking grumblings about fiscal recklessness. Taxes were slashed at the expense of balanced budgets. Thousands of additional troops have been deployed into war zones half a world away. And with the exception of some highly specific tariffs, international trade remains free and unfettered.
For all the ways Trump has defied and flouted the norms of his office, many policies that he has approved are downright ordinary by the standards of modern Republican administrations. It is a far cry from the mold-shattering approach he talked about before he became president, insisting he would punish China for “ripping us off,” pull out of Afghanistan because “we waste billions there” and slash the debt because it was “bad for the country.”
Many Republicans say that what has unfolded is not the Trump administration they were expecting.
“The biggest metaphor for this is that in Trump World, Steve Bannon is a smoldering ruin while the president has a good working relationship with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. “A year ago, I think very few people would have thought that.”
Trump’s Republican critics may be delighted that the status quo remains intact. But conservatives who believed his presidency would be more of a sharp break with the Bush years are starting to express alarm. And their concern could indicate trouble for Trump if his more conventional approach on some policy issues alienates his base and depresses Republican turnout in the midterm elections in November.
“Right at the point when everyone was thinking in my world that things were just going swimmingly, there are some good and important questions being raised,” said Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, which this week will host Trump as a speaker at its annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Others have been less generous. Mark Levin, the right-wing talk show host who is also set to speak at CPAC, recently asked his audience, “Is conservatism dead?” and accused lawmakers of “spending like drunken Marxists.”
Even some Trump allies who were initially slow to trust him — precisely because they worried about his fidelity to conservative principles — are voicing skepticism. “I hope this makes conservatives across the country realize that right now, they aren’t getting what they voted for in Washington,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who clashed bitterly with Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries but is now one of the president’s confidants, wrote in an essay for Time.com.
The deficits that Trump and the Republican-led Congress just approved, added Paul, who was an early Tea Party star, “would make President Obama cringe.”
Many Republicans do indeed prefer the more accommodating version of the president when it comes to most policies. And despite the extraordinary aspects of his presidency, Trump has approached governing in a way that bears strikingly similar parallels to Bush and Ronald Reagan.
One of Bush’s first official acts as president in January 2001 was to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, a global gag rule implemented under Reagan that withholds U.S. aid from health organizations worldwide that provide or even discuss abortion in family planning. Just three days into his administration, Trump did the same thing. The White House has since sought to expand the order.
Trump’s orders that government departments must safeguard religious liberties have echoes of Bush’s efforts to promote “faith-based” initiatives through special administrative offices in 11 federal agencies.
Trump’s effort to comb law schools and courtrooms across the country for young, unfailingly conservative nominees to the federal bench resembles the campaign Reagan undertook to leave an enduring rightward imprint on the courts.
Trump has also shown a great degree of deference to the military he once vowed to pull back from foreign conflict. Last year, he signed off on a troop surge in Afghanistan and he permitted the Pentagon to loosen its rules of engagement that dictate how the armed forces can pursue targets in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Military officials had complained the Obama White House’s rules prevented them from moving quickly and effectively enough.
His approach to trade has been surprisingly muted compared with what he said when he was campaigning, earning him praise from unlikely corners of his party. “Trump has generally been free trade, despite some worrisome rhetoric,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the free market-oriented groups funded by the brothers Charles and David Koch.
He has not yet labeled China a currency manipulator. One of his most dramatic announcements to date, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, had little practical effect because Congress never ratified it. And last week the Commerce Department said the nation’s trade deficit with China, the official measure of how many goods American businesses import compared with exports, was the highest on record.
On health care Trump has even proposed ways to lower prescription drug costs, reminiscent of Bush’s Medicare Part D.
In Trump’s more conventional policies, Republicans see something they do not usually find in this White House: reassurance.
“It’s one of the reasons someone like me — who was in the ‘Never Trump’ camp and who ultimately didn’t vote for Donald Trump — finds a lot in Donald Trump to like,” said Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary.
Many have come to accept Trump as someone who operates on two tracks, Fleischer added. “There’s the policy track,” he said. “And then there’s the personal behavior track, which sets him so far apart that it risks drowning the rest out.” There are many ways, however, in which Trump has actually gone much further than his Republican predecessors in pursuing conservative policy goals — especially in the environmental and regulatory realm. Bush, for instance, appointed a moderate Republican governor from a heavily Democratic state to lead his Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. Trump named the attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, who had sued the agency multiple times.
Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord and announced his intention to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — moves most Republicans say other conservative presidents would likely have found too unsettling.
But if once-skeptical Republicans can find reasons in Trump’s policies to look the other way on some of his personal shortcomings, there are also many who see little to like about his similarities with Bush, who turned budget surpluses into gaping deficits and helped spark the Republican backlash that became the Tea Party movement.
Many activists have been ratcheting up the pressure. In response to Trump’s signing the budget agreement and his embrace of a pathway to citizenship for younger immigrants brought here illegally as children, the Tea Party Patriots, one of the president’s most reliable supporters, said conservative voters were not getting what they signed up for.
“There is a sense of frustration among a lot of people who supported President Trump from the very beginning of his campaign,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the group’s president. “They feel a bit betrayed and they don’t feel like President Trump is keeping his promise.”