To paraphrase Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds, take your pick): There is a time to drain the swamp, and a time to get things done. In this case, “things” are the big-league infrastructure investment Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail, which will require deft and experienced political hands to shepherd through a mainly fiscally conservative Republican Congress. With that goal squarely in sight, Trump will name former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to run the Department of Transportation:
NEW: Donald Trump expected to name Elaine Chao as Transportation Secretary, senior Trump transition sources tell @ABC News.
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) November 29, 2016
Reuters notes Chao’s connections to the Republican establishment that Trump ran against in 2016:
President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to be his transportation secretary, a source with knowledge of the decision said on Tuesday.
The source, who requested anonymity, confirmed the pick to Reuters. Chao was labor secretary under President George W. Bush and the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position.
No one doubts Chao’s abilities to lead a Cabinet department. She did a fine job as Bush’s Labor Secretary, giving loyal service for the entire eight-year run. Her conservative credentials are solid; she has been a Heritage Foundation fellow during the periods when she was out of public service. Chao will be uniquely positioned for regulatory streamlining and rollbacks, although the DoT might not be the primary target of those efforts. Republicans have every reason to be delighted with her appointment.
But will Trump’s base be as happy with it? They cheered Trump’s infrastructure plan, a key part of his “Make America Great Again” campaign, and Chao’s connections on Capitol Hill will be invaluable to Trump in that regard — and not just with her husband, either. The choice demonstrates some political pragmatism on Trump’s part, but it cuts hard against the “drain the swamp” promises that Trump made. Chao’s credentials are solidly establishment, and her connections in the Beltway even more so.
Regardless, Trump’s base has reason to at least keep an open mind. Yes, this strengthens McConnell, a focal point for right-leaning populist ire, but it also advances central goals of the #MAGA campaign. Trump’s surrogates can sell this as “making the swamp work for us,” or some variation of that, while reminding everyone that this also gives Trump leverage on McConnell, too. The only people who might worry about this are the die-hard fiscal conservatives who oppose stimulus spending and want to cut the federal budget, but … they already have a glum outlook, and Chao’s appointment holds promise in other areas. Overall, this looks like a smart pick, and one that will increase confidence in Trump’s executive abilities.