The next congressional elections are still 18 months away. But if I were a Republican in a swing district, I’d be starting to sweat a little.
Because I’d be nervous about President Donald Trump taking me down.
It’s not about policy; most of the president’s positions, with the likely exception of his harmful anti-trade rhetoric, are popular with at least a plurality of the country.
The problem with this president is not so much what he does but how he does it.
In short, he acts as if his stated desire to be unpredictable, which can occasionally be useful in foreign policy, in business negotiations, or on reality TV, is an effective tactic in domestic politics.
By being impulsive and unpredictable and opaque in domestic affairs — including with his friends and allies — Donald Trump is sowing chaos.
The Comey situation is a good example. My reaction to the firing of former FBI Director Jim Comey was the same as my reaction so many years ago when I learned that my parents were getting divorced: “What took you so long?”
As Bill Bennett put it, Comey became too famous in a job which is supposed to be done quietly. That’s bad for the FBI itself and although firing the director might cause short-term consternation, a solid, serious replacement — NOT a former Trump campaign surrogate — will bring long-term benefits to morale and operation of this critical organization and to public trust in the outcome of any high-profile investigations.
Comey had to go.
But by firing a very visible employee the way he did — not in person, with no notice, while Comey was out of town at an event for new FBI recruits, and, most importantly, without giving his own team time to prepare an effective message — President Trump created massive and unnecessary chaos, and played right into the hands of Democrats and their media pawns.
I assume the president has long wanted to fire Comey and that newly confirmed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provided the best vehicle: a man of sterling non-partisan reputation confirmed on a 94-6 Senate vote and tasked to review the effectiveness of Comey’s leadership of the FBI. It was the perfect design for a sensitive situation.
Just last week, as the president’s determination to fire Comey reached a boiling point, Comey gave the administration an opportunity to say “We’ve been very patient with the FBI Director, but his misleading Congress about Huma Abedin’s e-mail has now convinced us beyond all doubt that Mr. Comey is unable to continue to lead the Bureau at this critical time.”
Trump surrogates, spokescritters, and approved background comments to the media could have set the table for the director’s departure in a more delicate way than did Sean Spicer’s clumsy Tuesday “I haven’t asked him” answer to ABC News’ Jon Karl who inquired whether the president still has confidence in Comey.
They could have begun simmering the sauce to eventually spoon over the cooked goose of Jim Comey’s FBI tenure, while maintaining the modestly positive messaging momentum following the House’s passage of Obamacare reform.
Before that, they could have tried a more subtle step: asking Comey to resign for the good of the FBI. With a seven-figure job certainly awaiting him in the private sector, and as a man who has already proven himself willing to fall on his sword (by destroying his own career to protect Loretta “Meet Me on the Tarmac” Lynch), he may well have quietly acquiesced.
Instead, the president and his inner circle behaved like impatient tone-deaf amateurs, leading not just to the expected faux outrage from “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” but to concern and consternation among many Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The administration has no single good explanation of their timing, even though the explanation seems quite simple. (I explained it in one sentence above.) They’re stepping on each other’s messages, at least when they’re not hiding in the bushes to avoid having to give any message at all. (I’m taking bets on this being part of an SNL skit this weekend.) Now, the Washington Post reports that Rod Rosenstein threatened to resign over the White House’s throwing him (and his memo to Attorney General Sessions) under the bus as the cause of Comey’s firing when the decision had already been made.
Trump’s staffers look rattled, chaotic, disorganized, and — and this is where the rubber hits the road as we look forward to the 2018 election — leaderless.
It’s one thing for a president to act and a nation, particularly politicians of the opposing party, to react. It’s another thing when each and every day a president acts and it’s his own staff who have to react because they had no idea what was coming.
Imagine FDR or Churchill or even George W Bush making grand public pronouncements about the military without consulting with his generals, and without giving his generals time to consult with their colonels. Actually, you can’t imagine it. Because they wouldn’t ever do it.
But President Trump does the political equivalent each and every day, resulting in the political army that is the GOP being paralyzed and confused and unable to gain ground. You may win an occasional battle, but the enemy had better be pretty weak if you expect to win the war. And today’s Democrats are indeed weak, but probably not that weak.
There’s another thing about chaos: It’s exhausting.
Always on edge. Never able to relax, to take a deep breath, to not worry about what tweetstorm or off-the-cuff comment will have to be explained next. And that’s just for his staff.
For us citizens, life is tiring enough. We have to close the sales, bring home the bacon, pay the bills, get the kids to soccer, and on and on and on. We don’t need a president wearing us out even more, day in and day out.
Did you ever just want your kids to be quiet for 10 minutes, just for a moment of peace and quiet? I want the same from this administration. Just a little break from the noise and the chaos… PLEASE!
The president’s poll numbers are dropping among independent voters and even among his perceived base: non-college-educated whites. Yes, he’s wearing us out, all of us.
Right now, it barely matters whether President Trump is right or wrong on any given policy or any given personnel action. What matters is whether he can execute the duties of the president in a way that looks like leadership. He shows that he can only in the way that an alcoholic shows he can go without a drink: for a short period of time and with great effort almost always resulting in a relapse.
Trump supporters’ favorite line is “let Trump be Trump.” It’s understandable for them (and for him) to believe “it got him this far, so why change now?” But if the president can’t change his style Republicans will suffer greatly in the next election. Not because they’re wrong on the issues, but because voters will not see a reason to champion an army without a leader.
The good news: Elections are still 18 months away and Donald Trump has more than enough time to rein in the chaos. The bad news: Nothing in America’s experience with the man suggests that he will.
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