The madcap caution of Donald Trump
The worry last week was that the Trump administration was ginning up fake intelligence about Iran blowing up oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to justify a war against Iran. Then, this week, President Donald Trump said the Iranian attacks weren’t a big deal.
The episode is another indication of the underlying modesty — not a very Trumpian word — of the administration.
Subtract Trump’s taste for nonstop controversy and rhetorical brinkmanship, and you’re left with an incrementalist center-right government that has pursued an expansionary fiscal policy and avoided foreign war, for a period of peace and prosperity that — in any other universe — would be at the core of a stay-the-course re-election message.
For a while, the Obama doctrine was, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” The Trump team has built out the doctrine to “Privately consider and sometimes openly threaten stupid stuff, but at the end of the day, don’t do it (usually).”
The Mexico tariff threat was typical. If Trump had gone through with the steadily escalating tariffs, it would have been a blow to our own economy and that of an ally. Instead, he got what might prove to be meaningful concessions from Mexico. Even if he hadn’t, he easily could have found some reason to delay or call off the tariffs.
The thing about a Trump threat is that he always controls whether he’s going to go through with it or not. He’s going to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement — actually no, he’s not. He’s going to impose auto tariffs on Canada — well, not really. What he’s going to do is sign a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada that’s a somewhat altered version of NAFTA and urge Congress to pass it.
Allies might be understandably appalled (or at times alarmed) by his habit of berating them and squeezing them for concessions, but the alliance system, a product of deeper forces than the persona of any one president, remains intact.
In the Middle East, Trump accelerated an anti-ISIS campaign that he inherited, announced a withdrawal from Syria that he didn’t fully follow through on and kept troops in Afghanistan. Steady as she goes.
Pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord is a big deal and, given that it’s not entirely clear how the administration imagines resolving the crisis, genuinely a shot in the dark (although Trump says he wants to talk).
Another gamble is the trade war with China, a truly significant departure from the old bipartisan consensus, yet even here, Trump presumably has the off-ramp of a fig-leaf deal should he decide that he wants to take it.
At home, in terms of the economy, everything (except for the tariffs) has been geared to preserving and boosting the recovery, from the tax cuts, to the deregulation, to the lack of interest in cutting spending, to Trump’s jawboning of the Federal Reserve to keep rates low.
The action on immigration is heavily focused on the border, with the goal of diminishing a growing crisis rather than fashioning a transformation.
Trump has kept the Senate occupied with a steady diet of judicial nominations approved by the conservative legal establishment.
Any political fence-sitter inclined to consider this a solid record of accomplishment has the competing information to consider of Trump’s constant tweeting and lurid, yet meaningless, controversies.
Given the choice, you’d prefer that people believed that your administration was cautious and incremental, while it undertook far-reaching changes, rather than believe it’s on the verge of careening out of control, while pursuing a fairly reasonable path.
The careening out of control has seemed a real possibility at times, of course, and his shambolic, confrontational governing style could yet catch up to him.
For now, he can plausibly make a re-election pitch that, despite what you might have gathered, he’s been a steward of a country enjoying markedly good times.