Given the way he came to the Presidency, as an insurgent candidate with, at best, the tolerance of the Republican Party and its Congressional majorities, rather than with their blessings, Trump could have gone either way in choosing his Cabinet. He could have picked people just as much on the fringes of the party as he is, filled with the wacky ideas that inspired his supporters, even if those ideas hardly constituted an ideology in the sense of a coherent set of ideas that Trump felt obliged to carry out as best he could when he won the unlikely victory and became President. Or else he could choose a cabinet drawn from the permanent Establishment so as to carry out a traditional Republican, which means Conservative, political program, which is what Eisenhower did and what Reagan did, Reagan able after picking his Cabinet to sit back or clear brush at his ranch. If Trump had decided mostly on the latter course, that would be much to the relief of onlookers like myself who prefer competence above everything else and think that the Republic is therefore likely to muddle through, especially because the Conservative economic program, I believe, is so mistaken that it might drive us into a recession but likely not worse, and that the foreign policy program would probably not be much more belligerent than what it would have been with Hillary, although one can never count on foreign policy principles not going off the deep end, which is what happened when the George W. Bush people, who had seemed quintessentially Establishment, took power and get us entangled in a way it would take eight years of a successor to Bush to get us out from under.
But there are enough kooky or just extremely Conservative or Russia affiliated choices in the prospective Cabinet to make us wonder what policies this Administration will actually pursue once it is in office. Will an Attorney-General Sessions roll back civil rights or just neglect them? How belligerent is “Mad Dog” Mattis when it comes to policy rather than leading troops? The impending confirmation hearings are therefore of great interest because of what they will reveal about his choices. That is quite aside from the question of whether or not any of them will be blocked from taking office. For Trump, the main choice in his Presidency might be how he decided to stack his Cabinet. Once that choice is made, the government will be run by the Cabinet both because Trump has no head for directing the government and is too intimidated by the demands of the office to make much of a try at it. Once Trump has selected his Cabinet, he can sit back and just preside over what he hath wrought.
A particularly revealing confirmation hearing may be that of Dr. Tom Price, a member of the House of Representatives, as Secretary of Health and Human Services. The New York Times has gone on at length about the nominee’s opposition to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, all of which he might do all in his power to gut. The confirmation hearing will tell at least what will be the rhetorical pose of the Administration towards such policies. Dr. Price may just reaffirm the anti-New Deal and anti-Great Society positions he has taken in the past. In that case, the Democratic members of the committee could engage with him in a discussion of the issues. Do we really want to reverse 80 years of social policy? Alternatively, Dr. Price might say, as Paul Ryan does, that he is out to modify those programs in order to save them, and then the Democrats would have to counter that dodge by saying that what he wants to do will destroy not save the programs. That will be a technical rather than a policy discussion. It will be a question of whose figures really do add up. Or Dr. Price might say that he is acceding to the new President’s previously stated view that he does not want to tamper with Medicare or Social Security. Deferring to Trump is also at the moment Paul Ryan’s declared position. And then the Democrats could probe for whether or not he really means that despite his own past positions, the Democrats well aware of the fact that the President elect is not much on ideological consistency. Which of the three alternatives bear the brunt of the discussion will tell what it will be like to deal with this Administration. Are they radicals, feigned reformers, or supporters of what has become the social compact in America but given to flapdoodle, just like their commander in chief, who has “clarified” his idea of starting an arms race by saying all he meant was that we would modernize our nuclear arsenal, which is what Obama had already started doing. Will, in fact, Trump’s plan to defeat ISIS be any different from Obama’s, which in fact does have ISIS on the run? And on how many other issues will the Administration line up as principled radicals, obfuscators, or upholders of the current system now that they have attained power? An open question.
All George W. Bush, a figurehead President, could do in the first few days of the Hurricane Katrina crisis was treat it as a financial issue to be met with private charity as well as public financing rather than as an operational problem where no one seemed able to do things at other than the sickeningly slow pace that had also held for the War in Iraq. Why, at the least, after some years of war, didn’t we have military transportation that could withstand roadside bombs? It is as if the Republican Party had surrendered its right to consider itself a party capable of running a national administration. Like the Palestine Liberation Organization, it is interested only in politics, not in governance, and that might happen again in the Trump Administration, nobody capable of knocking heads in Congress together so that they can even come up with a “replace” in the “repeal and replace Obamacare” proposal-- which would be just as well, the country frozen into what it has for no better reason than that Republicans in Congress don’t know how to legislate, only to obstruct. I am less sanguine about what will happen in foreign policy. Trump follows a Democratic President who knew his own mind and was willing to override the consensus of his Cabinet which thought the United States should do something more about Syria when the President thought there wasn’t much we could do that was positive. Better stay out. Will Trump override his military advisors or let them engage in invasions that go too far? I don’t know if he has the self confidence or the intestinal fortitude to do that, especially if it is a close call, as it is likely to be, with regard to action in the Middle East or North Korea. Meanwhile, his affection for Putin may keep him from doing anything rash there, but you never know.