Donald Trump's Cabinet a boon for conservatives

Story highlights

  • Many on the team promise to dismantle current health care and environmental policy
  • But Trump also risks setting up competing power centers within his Cabinet

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump might have been a conservative hiding in plain sight this whole time.

The President-elect, who ran on populism rather than ideology and was once viewed as a political apostate by many conservatives, might represent the movement's most significant governing moment since Ronald Reagan.
Trump is assembling a conservative dream team of domestic Cabinet appointments that promises to move swiftly to dismantle the Obama administration's legacy in health care, education, labor and environmental policy. They will be aided by a Republican-controlled House and Senate that will coordinate on legislation.
    That prospect is a far cry from the days when many conservatives rejected Trump outright as he picked off the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, eviscerating the movement's most promising presidential primary field in decades.
    "I think most conservatives are pretty pleasantly surprised," said Matt Lewis, a CNN commentator and author of "Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim its Conservative Roots)."
    Yet while Trump has been on the same page as core Republicans on sweeping tax cuts and trimming business regulation, his views in some other areas of policy are far less well-defined -- particularly social issues.

    Potential Cabinet clash

    Which means he also risks setting up competing power centers within his Cabinet, as some of his conservative picks appear likely to clash with other distinct groups in Trump's growing political orbit: corporate leaders and retired generals.
    But at least one core conservative objective seems assured -- appointing a likeminded justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court -- and those on the ideological right for that reason alone can now claim vindication and hope for more.
    Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said that the Trump Cabinet could turn out to be the most conservative in years.
    "It is a really conservative Cabinet, and a lot of conservatives are really happy. I have had Reagan people come up to me and say this more conservative than Reagan's Cabinet," said Schlapp, one of those who stood by Trump throughout the election.
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    Trump's turn to the right was first evidenced in his pick of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, long a favorite of social and evangelical conservatives, as his vice presidential running mate and has been reinforced ever since, including this past weekend.
    On Saturday, the President-elect named South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney as his budget director. Mulvaney, known as a fiscal hawk, is a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus -- the rebellious anti-establishment group that has riled Republican House leaders in recent years.
    Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for education secretary, is likely to push hard on the conservative pet cause of school vouchers. At the Department of Labor, Trump has nominated fast food magnate Andrew Puzder, who opposes a rise in the minimum wage and was branded "anti-worker" by former Democratic Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
    The Environmental Protection Agency is slated to be led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has questioned climate science and vowed to roll back emissions limits on power plants -- another conservative priority.
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    Other prominent conservatives at the heart of Trump's administration include former pediatric neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development; Rep. Tom Price, a fierce opponent of Obamacare, at the Department of Health and Human Services; and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions atop the Justice Department.
    Elaine Chao, Trump's nominee for secretary of transportation, was regarded as one of the most conservative members of the George W. Bush administration when she ran the Labor Department.

    Deep skepticism of government

    Each has common traits: Deep skepticism of the role of government and a belief that the Obama administration overreached. In some cases, they appear philosophically opposed to the mission of the department they will manage. Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, for instance, publicly promised to abolish the department while running in the 2012 presidential election.
    "I think we can see exactly where the President-elect is going on this. He's appointing people to dismantle the agencies that they're scheduled to lead, to take their mission and flush it," environmental campaigner Tom Steyer told CNN's Jake Tapper earlier this month.
    In some ways, Trump's conservative direction seems out of step with his campaign. On the trail, he evinced little ideological consistency and used populist techniques to tap into grievances among a political base that hasn't necessarily embraced conservative policies, such as on trade and entitlements.
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    It remains to be seen whether the former Midwest Democrats who voted for him will be pleased with such a conservative administration.
    Still, many of his voters shared the conviction that Washington needs a total shake-up, and his Cabinet choices could fit that bill.

    Questions about Trump's own beliefs

    Trump's sudden tack rightward is also raising questions about his own core political beliefs and the characteristics of the administration he will lead.
    Schlapp believes that Trump -- a larger-than-life figure from liberal Manhattan who has boasted about financing Democrats and Republicans in cycles past -- did evolve politically since he embarked on his presidential run.
    "I had talked with Trump for the previous two or three years, and it always hit me that he had conservative instincts, although as a non-politician, he did not always sound like an orthodox politician," Schlapp said.
    Other conservatives saw Trump's evolution coming after he identified fury among grass-roots conservatives over illegal immigration as a driving issue -- and saw in Trump the same kind of opening as the man who became the hero of the movement, Ronald Reagan.
    "I can remember 1980, when a lot of us didn't think Reagan was an authentic conservative. Reagan turned out to be the best president of the century," said conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly in an interview shortly before her death this year, explaining her decision to back Trump.
    The flurry of conservative appointments has delighted conservatives on Capitol Hill. Enjoying an immediate payoff is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who walked a political tightrope over Trump's most controversial statements in the campaign but now has the chance to enact a wish list of conservative legislation.
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    One interpretation of Trump's move right is that his intentions are more practical than ideological.
    More than anything else, his campaign was animated by a desire to pile up political "wins." By taking advantage of Republican control of Congress and offering party leaders what they want, he could unleash an early tsunami of new laws and social policy and declare his administration a prolific success.
    As such, Trump's conservative turn has compounded the misery of Democrats, who expected a Hillary Clinton victory would cement the legacy of Obama's eight White House years.

    Progressives fear lack of checks

    Progressives fear that Trump is also buying the loyalty of GOP leaders on Capitol Hill who may be less inclined to probe issues like alleged Russian intervention in the election and the ethical questions posed by the President-elect's vast business interests.
    "It is very concerning that they are so excited they can move these priorities through on their own -- that they are not going to look into basic separation of powers, basic conflict of interest," said Emily Tisch Sussman, campaign director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "This should be the most basic function of Congress."
    At the same time, the potentially competing government spheres could lead to infighting that stymies ideologues' aspirations.
    In one example, Trump's nominee for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has vocally supported right-wing positions on settlements and moving the embassy to Jerusalem. But he could find himself in conflict with Rex Tillerson.
    Trump's pick for secretary of state is an oil magnate with deep ties in the Arab world, and could adopt his department's more traditional views on the Middle East and the need for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
    There are also former military men, include Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis and Homeland Security pick John Kelly, who have spent their careers avoiding all signs of partisan bias and who mark a contrast with the conservative bloc.
    Former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, Trump's pick for treasury secretary, meanwhile, has backed Trump's plans for a massive infrastructure spending program. It's the kind of venture that appears at odds with Mulvaney's strict economic conservativism and budget restraint.
    One determinant of how those potential conflicts will play out is how active the White House itself will want to be. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example, preferred a strong West Wing to keep cabinet departments in line.
    But Trump might not be so inclined to rein in his agency heads -- and he might not be in a strong position to, since he will face huge demands on his time that threaten to overwhelm an inexperienced White House staff.
    "Look, if someone does something that Trump doesn't like, he will be capricious on an ad hoc process and overrule people," said Lewis.
    On the other hand, "government is very big. Because the President is worried about ISIS and building a (border) wall and reforming education, he probably isn't going to be in the weeds on knowing everything that is happening."
    He concluded, "When you hire people, they will make decisions."