Julian Zelizer: Trump's Cabinet picks hew closely to what GOP has long advocated
In campaign, Trump promised he would take positions all along political spectrum, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Was it a bait and switch?
Throughout the Republican primaries, Donald Trump carved out stances that broke with longtime GOP orthodoxy. As a businessman who sometimes expressed support for Democrats and for positions favored by liberals in his home state of New York, Trump promised he would be an unconventional president capable of taking positions all along the political spectrum.
But since he was elected President, Trump has named Cabinet members who hew closely to what Republicans have advocated for decades. In fact, it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas for the Republican Party.
For all the talk about how Trump would defy the Republican Party and challenge the status quo, his Cabinet picks have been remarkably consistent – and conservative. It should have become clear when Trump announced that Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a staunch right-wing conservative who has been a strong opponent of abortion rights as well as LGBT rights, also skeptical of climate change and a champion of creationism, would take over the transition from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The recent announcement that US Rep. Tom Price, an ardent opponent of Obamacare, will head the Department of Health and Human Services is just one more piece of evidence that Trump will govern with a rightward team of conservatives surrounding him. Trump apparently is aiming to build a new Republican coalition that combines blue-collar workers with the rest of the existing conservative establishment.
Some Republican commentators are still acting as if things are up in the air. In his most recent column, David Brooks of The New York Times said that Trump is a threat to the party loyalty that has dominated American politics. “He is hostile to the Republican establishment,” Brooks wrote. “His proposals cut across orthodox partisan lines.”
If people are waiting for him to moderate or for his presidency to cause a major rupture in the GOP, they might be waiting for a long time. Everything so far suggests he is planning to make some pretty radical moves to reverse most of President Barack Obama’s policies and to go even further than that. For all the pleasantries that have been uttered between Trump and Obama, this President-elect is clearly is rightward-bound.
The early announcements about his appointments set a clear tone. With “alt-right” favorite Steve Bannon as his senior adviser and Reince Preibus, who headed the Republican National Committee, as his chief of staff, Trump instantly put into place figures who could appeal to congressional Republicans, the conservative media and right-wing organizations that hover around sites such as Breitbart.com.
Then Trump went even further. He announced that Sen. Jeff Sessions, an ardent opponent of voting rights and a fierce adversary of legal and illegal immigrants, such as opposing giving visas to many high-skilled workers, would head the Justice Department. That sent a clear signal to most people in Washington about the direction his policies would take. With Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, as his national security adviser, he has turned to someone who has argued that Islamism is a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and that it must be “excised.”
US Rep. Mike Pompeo, a conservative who was a driving force in the Benghazi investigation, heading the CIA sets up the agency to support an extremely aggressive stance in how the war on terrorism will be conducted.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, nominated as US ambassador to the United Nations, came into politics as a tea party Republican, endorsed by Sarah Palin in her run for governor, and has an extremely conservative voting record on almost every issue. To be sure, she lowered the Confederate flag from the state Capitol after horrendous racially charged shootings in South Carolina, but that is a long way from establishing that she is a moderate in general.
Betsy DeVos, who will be the secretary of education, is one of the most prominent and fervent advocates of using federal money for charter schools. She also comes from a family that has donated enormous amounts of money to all sorts of conservative causes, effectively the Koch brothers of the Midwest.
The transportation secretary-to-be, Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had a solid, anti-union record when she was secretary of labor under President George W. Bush. Chao is well-networked in the most “establishment” Republican circles of Washington.
As labor secretary, she drew criticism from Democrats for failing to investigate complaints from workers or to promote new health regulations. When 12 miners died in the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, critics argued she had not conducted sufficient safety inspections in mines.
Some of the lower-level appointments have also sent congressional Republicans strong signals about where the administration will go. The announcement that KT McFarland, a former national security official and Fox News analyst, as deputy national security adviser pleased many hawks given her confrontational stands against Russia and, even more importantly, extremely tough posture toward Iran. While at Fox, McFarland responded to the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium, by saying that “political correctness” is “getting us killed” by preventing the United States from rounding up Muslims. “Either bomb Iran, or let Iran get the bomb,” she also said in a statement of her policy toward the region.
Bringing Price on board to head the HHS is an equally radical statement. Getting rid of Obamacare has been at the top of the list for many Republicans since it was passed. Price has never been shy about his positions on the program. “Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration blatantly ignored the voices of the American people and rammed through a hyperpartisan piece of legislation that will have a disastrous effect on our nation’s health care system,” the congressman said in 2010. Unlike some Republicans, Price has not softened his views since the program went into effect.
While it will be difficult for congressional Republicans to make a direct assault on Obamacare in the coming year, the other way in which a conservative administration can effectively gut a policy is to put an opponent in charge of the agency that administers it.
This was Ronald Reagan’s strategy for much of the 1980s: undermine federal programs from within. That’s why Reagan had Clarence Thomas, an opponent of affirmative action, head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or James Watt, an anti-environmentalist, as secretary of interior. With Price making big decisions about who should administer the program and how to direct resources within his agency, the Affordable Care Act will be vulnerable from day one even if it remains on the books.
’Team of Rivals’?
Even the so-called possible Team of Rivals appointments must be taken with a grain of salt. The possible appointment of Mitt Romney to be secretary of state has now become the chief question about whether Trump really wants a team of rivals and seeks to broaden his party.
While it is true that Romney headed the anti-Trump effort within the GOP and there is no love lost between these men, a quick look at Romney’s 2012 campaign is reminder of how far to the right he is willing to go when it suits his political purposes. Romney was extremely hawkish in his positions about Iran, remaining an opponent of any kind of nuclear deal, and surrounded himself with advisers who made extreme statements about the threats from Islam. He told voters that he could wage a war on Iran without congressional approval. Although he differs from Trump in being more confrontational with Russia, something that would please most conservatives, there are not so many differences between them.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Another alternative would be to name retired Gen. David Petraeus to be secretary of state. Notwithstanding the controversy this will generate given his own classification scandal, having him at State, with Flynn at the National Security Council and possibly Marine Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary – breaking a 65-year tradition of not having military men in that role – would stack much of foreign policy with officials oriented toward the use of force rather than steeped in diplomacy to handle relations overseas.
When it comes to the Koch brothers, they have a lot to be excited about. While they stayed far away from Trump during the campaign, the President-elect is making a number of appointments of loyal Koch acolytes to his team. As Politico reported, his transition team as well as several administration picks have tapped into the Koch world, including White House counsel Don McGahn to transition team executive members such as Rebekah Mercer. Another Politico article noted how despite the President-elect’s populist campaign Wall Street bankers and traders are celebrating the transition period as many major investors, from Wilbur Ross (expected to be the secretary of commerce) to Steven Mnuchin (secretary of treasury), have been coming in and out of meetings at the Trump White House-in-waiting on Fifth Avenue.
So for all the talk about divisions within the GOP and Trump’s unorthodox policy position, this is really looking like a very traditional Republican administration, and one that will veer to the right, not the center, on domestic and foreign policy.
With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the GOP will be in a strong position to move public policy in pretty dramatic fashion over the coming two years. And with Democrats defending more Senate seats than Republicans in 2018, the policymaking window might be even bigger for this president than others have enjoyed in the past.