The party of no content

In the assessment of Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, Trump “wasted” his early congressional majority, and his record “pales beside those of other modern presidents.” The party is not making many big promises going into the 2020 election, either.

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The most obvious explanation is that Trump does not care much about policy. He often seems uninterested in the work of the presidency and the extraordinary power and opportunity it affords, and uninterested in learning what he could do with it if he felt like it. He does not read intelligence reports or think-tank proposals. He does not dine with the nation’s top experts. His administration is filled with neophytes and yes-men. He watches a lot of television and plays a lot of golf.

Even his 2016 promises were rhetorical, not technocratic; Trump was to be taken seriously but not literally, as you might have heard. “Trump is not really much of a programmatic policy maker. He’s about themes and values,” Pippa Norris, a comparative political scientist at Harvard, told me, citing his nativism and nationalism as those core values.

Once in office, then, it was perhaps unsurprising that Trump tended to do things the easy way, tossing off executive orders rather than engaging in Lyndon B. Johnson–type persuasive politics to get big, complicated bills passed. The bully pulpit and the presidential pen became the main tools the White House used to instantiate Trump’s priorities: making it easier to drill for oil and harder to get Medicaid; closing the country off, caging immigrants, and punishing noncitizens; and engaging in a quixotic trade war with China. More recently, Trump has used executive orders to try to provide relief from the coronavirus-induced recession, as Congress has stalled on another aid bill.

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