President Trump

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 4-

This week:

  • Trump’s inaugural address a scathing indictment of Washington’s political class
  • Dems add more Trump nominees to their hit list
  • Two Senate races in Trump-friendly states

Trump administration

So many people never expected this day to come. But it’s here — Trump is president. The federal government’s executive apparatus, when it acts, acts in his name. And of course, this creates an entirely new dynamic in Washington, whose undertones are wholly counterintuitive and unlike anything we’ve seen previously.

Democrats may well have a lot of common ground with Trump on certain issues: Infrastructure projects and protectionism, to name two areas. But partisanship dies hard. And the Democratic base is so furious over Trump’s election that congressional Democrats can’t afford to let him have anything easy.

Inauguration: Trump’s inaugural address was short and to the point, and for that alone one of the better speeches he has given. It was a straightforward statement of his political movement and its goals, without too much airy rhetoric or philosophical embellishment.

Many commentators noted, accurately, that it could have been easily given at any of his campaign rallies, except that it was less campaign-like because it lacked attacks on political opponents.

This time, the attack was less partisan. It was that other Trump staple, the ferocious attack on the political establishments of both parties, including nearly all of the politicians sitting around him as he delivered it.

That ferocious indictment is and always has been central to Trump’s thinking:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.

This, of course, sets the bar very high for Trump. It will surely be cited (fairly or unfairly) each time some Republican crony finds a way of benefiting from a new Trump policy.

But it is also the most conservative part of Trump’s philosophy, and the part conservatives should watch most carefully. It subtly echoes the thinking of Frederic Bastiat, a very un-populist libertarian politician and political thinker of the 19th Century whose ideas would have been at odds with Trump in many ways:

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

Conservatives’ top priority in the Trump administration, and the yardstick by which they will likely measure it, will be his appointments to the judiciary and especially the Supreme Court. But they should also carefully watch this particular concept and how Trump follows through on it. WIll he wring some of the plunder out of the system (through tax reform and simplification, budget reform especially at the Pentagon and the end of subsidy programs), or will he follow Obama’s lead with policies that make sure the right people (his own partisans) get more of the plunder?


Confirmation: The day President Obama took office, nearly all of his cabinet appointees were confirmed unanimously. This was not the case for Trump, who now has confirmed Defense and Homeland Security secretaries, and that’s pretty much it. Democrats are even holding back Trump’s well-qualified nominee for the CIA, basically because they can.

Senate Democrats’ refusal of a timely confirmation to still more of Trump’s nominees may or may not matter politically, but it hints at a petty and short-sighted strategy on their part. Yes, they are doing what they can to placate their base. But Democrats have never won an election based on their base’s turnout. Their great victories have always required support from the political middle — as in 2006, when they clearly chewed away Republicans advantages there and won a congressional majority.

Their best hope for 2018 — as was the Republicans’ best hope for 2010 — is that Trump will act quickly, overreach his mandate, and hang himself with all the rope they give him. Obama did exactly this, and Republicans capitalized in 2010.

But now the Democrats they want to hang on to that rope as tightly as they can. They will hold off on confirming nominees as long as possible (they can drag it out until March by filing timely objections) even at the possible expense of continuity of government. It does not seem likely to help their cause. And it might well weaken them, especially in Trump states where vulnerable Democrats will have to defend Senate seats next November.

Senate 2018

We continue our look at Senate races this week, moving on to more promising pickups for Republicans.

Montana: President Trump, of all people, made Republicans’ task of defeating Democratic Sen. Jon Tester much harder by snapping up his likely 2018 opponent, at-large Rep. Ryan Zinke (R), as his interior secretary. That leaves Republicans scrambling to find a replacement, and puts Tester on an easier — but by no means easy — path to survival.

Greg Gianforte, the Republicans’ (narrowly) unsuccessful 2016 nominee for governor, already appears to be knee-deep in the race to succeed Zinke in the House, so a Senate bid appears to be unlikely. 

At this point, the Montana race remains a pickup possibility for the GOP, but a lot hangs on the party’s ability to find a decent candidate. The state is by no means a Republican monolith like Idaho, its neighbor — it has a strong left-populist labor streak which made it ideal for Trump and his 20-point victory, but which has also kept the governor’s office out of Republican hands for more than a decade now.

Tester came to power in 2006, amid accusations of Republican lobbyist-related corruption that touched his opponent, the late Conrad Burns. In 2012, he survived a close race against the former Republican at-large congressman, Dennis Rehberg. Republicans have never figured out a way to convert the state’s Republican dominance at the presidential level into anything reliable at the state level. That, and the questions surrounding who will take the plunge on the Republican side, makes this race a big question-mark for 2018.

North Dakota: Now that it seems clear Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D, will not be taking a job in Trump’s administration, the question of how she survives 2018 looms. She is, by far, the strongest candidate Democrats have in the state today. But keep in mind, this is a state that Donald Trump just won by 36 points, blowing away the landslides won by previous Republican candidates.

And not only did Trump win in 2016, but Democrats were crushed in a way rarely seen before. Not a single statewide Democratic candidate got as much as 30 percent of the vote, and Democrats lost even more seats in a state House and Senate where they were already nearly non-existent. The state has always leaned Republican, yes, but previously it has been willing to elect Democrats statewide, and had two Democratic Senators until 2011. That might just be changing under Heitkamp’s feet.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already met with Rep. Kevin Cramer to discuss running for the seat. He would be a formidable opponent for Heitkamp, who won by less than one point in 2012 over a weaker opponent (former Rep. Rick Berg) in a strong Democratic presidential year.

Watch for Heitkamp to support a large number of Trump nominees and policies, and just generally to distance herself from her national party between now and election day.

Governor 2018

Iowa: The Iowa Starting Line blog reported last week that Democrats suffered  one early disappointment here: Their top recruit for governor of Iowa will not be running.

State Sen. Liz Mathis’ decision not to run is good news for Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, R, who will soon succeed Gov. Terry Branstad when he is confirmed as Trump’s ambassador to China.

Just a few months after Trump’s surprisingly large win in the Hawkeye State, the GOP there is in strong shape, holding on to the lead in party voter registrations that it had lost during the late Bush and Obama eras but regained in time for the 2014 midterm. As we’ve noted before, Republicans are at a crossroads right now in Iowa. They could slide back into mediocrity, but it also seems like a state they could successfully redden as they have done to Missouri to the south.