Way back in May, I wrote in this space about the positive attributes of both major-party candidates. In discussing Donald Trump, I noted his success in business and then asserted that “Many of the skills required for success in business — hiring, delegation of responsibility, compromise and cost-benefit analysis — relate directly to the job he seeks. Moreover, many of his successes in business (like his primary wins) have been the result of persuasion rather than power, a trait we have seen in some of our best presidents.”
My conclusion was that his skill set was well-suited to the presidency and that he could bring real value to the job.
Just a few weeks into the new administration, I am ready to admit that I was wrong.
I’m not addressing here the most important decisions he has made: building the wall, the limits on immigration or his choice for the Supreme Court. After all, he promised the first two in his campaign explicitly — and Judge Neil Gorsuch is quite qualified for the high court. Elections have consequences, and all three of these things flow from the undeniable fact that Trump won the Electoral College.
What I was wrong about was his way of governing, which I expected to reflect the traits I described. In hiring, delegation, compromise, cost-benefit analysis and the use of persuasion rather than power, I was wrong on each count.
With hiring and delegation, which lie at the heart of a businessman’s success, it is undeniable that some of Trump’s hires have been solid. Others, though, are terrible on the objective basis of qualifications. He has chosen a Secretary of Energy (Rick Perry), for example, who did not seem to know what the Department of Energy even does and has not worked in that field. His choice for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, has strong opinions but little experience.
Dr. Ben Carson, who would seem a natural for Health and Human Services, was instead picked to head up Housing and Urban Development, apparently based on his experiences living in housing in an urban area. Experts with experience (and who for the record shared Trump’s views) were available but ignored. That’s troubling and contrasts with my hopes for a businessman-president. He probably will delegate authority to them, but that makes the lack of experience more of a problem as these inexperienced new members of the Cabinet are likely to become captives of entrenched bureaucracies they direct but do not understand.
And what about compromise, cost-benefit analysis and the use of persuasion rather than power? There is little or no evidence of those positive traits in the presidency so far. Trump has relied on executive orders rather than pursuing legislation (which involves persuasion and compromise). Given rampant criticism of “Imperial” President Obama for doing the same thing, at least some principled Republicans must be disheartened. He has even failed to consult with his own administrators in rolling out major initiatives like the hastily imposed travel restrictions. There has been no time for a cost-benefit analysis on effective procedures; other values seem to have predominated in determining strategy. Instead of analysis, there seems to be a mad rush to do something.
In the end, Trump’s first weeks have utterly failed to reflect the most important conservative principle of all: restraint. Conservatism traditionally has promised stability, but the Trump administration thrives on creating instability.
Over time, of course, this might change. We all must hope that at least the unnecessary drama that has attended the president’s obsession with his own popularity will wane as the routine of governing settles in. Using Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast — of all events — to brag on his success on “The Apprentice” and to denigrate the show’s successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was clearly a low point and yet all too typical. He seems incapable of restraining himself from self-aggrandizement even when doing so would advance the goals he has articulated and pursued in the interest of those who elected him. For those of us who believe in a limited government, one important limit should be on the chief executive’s ego.
Formerly of the Baylor Law School faculty, Mark Osler occupies the Robert & Marion Short Distinguished Chair of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. His 2016 book, “Prosecuting Jesus,” is a memoir of performing the trial of Jesus in 11 states.