Michael G. Roskin: President Pence?
Wednesday, November 30, 2016 3:18 PM
Now that the reality of Trump’s victory has sunk in, journalists divide into roughly two classes on how to handle a Trump presidency: (1) support him while encouraging him to compromise and pursue moderate policies, which he sometimes hints at; or (2) oppose him from the get-go with unrelenting criticism, because he represents a dangerous turn in U.S. politics.
So, calming down or stirring up? Trump himself loves drama, striving to entertain and keep ’em guessing. But he hates criticism and tends to destroy himself by over-reacting. Latest example: Having won, Trump couldn’t relax and enjoy it. Instead, he tweeted that Hillary’s 2.5 million more popular votes than he got was due only to millions of illegal voters. The media jumped on this patent falsehood.
Trump, convinced that the media is unfair, tweets compulsively, providing a new story weekly. For him, it demonstrates that he must win at everything. For the media, it’s a good story that sells newspapers and gains TV viewers. Unless Trump can still his tweeting finger, a retaliatory cycle could continue his entire term. The media will be the net winner, and Trump will appear unstable and erratic.
Talk about erratic: Candidate Trump promised to waterboard and worse. Retired Gen. James Mattis, a possible defense secretary, told him that torture does not work and that he gets more from “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.” (For himself or the prisoner? Strict Muslims do not use tobacco or alcohol.) In about 5 seconds, Mattis turned Trump around on torture. Problem: If he flips one way today, he can flop back the other way tomorrow.
Will his compulsion for revenge against the media lead to rages and policy missteps that bring him down? What will happen if the economy, budget, Middle East and much else do not respond to Trump’s forceful personality? He will blame the media and tweet far into the night.
The real make-or-break will likely be the economy. If good factory jobs return, other big promises will pass unnoticed. If we’re in a recession in 2018, however, Republicans will suffer congressional losses bigger than typical of midterm elections. If recession lingers until 2020, Republicans, fearful for their own re-election, could seek a new candidate. Many Republicans, especially Trump’s primary opponents, quietly hate him and may not obey him in Congress.
It is even possible that Trump will not finish his first term. His refusal to divest himself of all commercial interests, especially overseas partnerships, is asking for trouble. Apparently the president is not bound by the usual conflict-of-interest rules, but serving as an unregistered foreign agent could get him impeached. Republicans in Congress will not necessarily protect him, as Nixon discovered in 1974.
A more likely scenario, however, is that Trump tweeting frenzies suggest mental breakdown, kicking in Section 4 of the 25th Amendment: When the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet declare him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” power passes to the vice-president. We could see a President Pence before the 2020 elections.
Pence has put himself in a good position. Religious and a serious conservative, he supported Trump but in a non-fanatic way, sometimes trying to soften Trump’s extreme statements. Neither Trump nor mainstream Republicans have much to hold against him. One interesting possibility is that Trump, in the European style, sets tone and direction as president, but Pence, like a European prime minister, does day-to-day administration. Trump is not a detail policy person; Pence is.
To be sure, Trump’s behavior in office could turn all the above on its head. Craving adulation, he can easily modify his positions to win public favor. He will not be averse to firing cabinet secretaries and personal assistants, as he has done for years on his reality TV show. He is perfectly capable of patching things up with foreign leaders. He could even slap down the white nationalists of the alt-right.
Conceivably, his tough-guy manner might work with other tough guys such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, what is called the “peace of strong men.” He could say, “Look, what do you want? Crimea? The South China Sea? Let’s see if we can make a deal.” Most manufacturers like globalization and overseas expansion, but maybe Trump can jawbone them into keeping factory jobs here.
Still, it is hard to imagine a Trump presidency will be normal. Quarrels among his staff — which should never have gone public — suggest poor control. They also perpetuate the misunderstanding of the modern role of secretary of state, who does public relations; the national security advisor and defense secretary are the ones the president listens to.
International politics, because it is among sovereign entities, is wilder than domestic politics, which has certain rules. Reality TV is no preparation for reality, which Trump will find awfully messy. A strong personality does not solve all problems, something that will baffle and frustrate President Trump.