Clearing the deck

Donald Trump’s recent clearing of the deck in his administration ended a chapter with those Republicans who were under the misapprehension that they could control his presidency. First, Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster were let go, along with a few attorneys. Next, he made his second compromise with Democrats on the budget, forcing Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to accept a more generous agenda.

Now mind you, Trump protested that it would be the last time he accepted another such budget — just like he swore he would never agree to in September. Remember, Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were pleased with the first one and even more giddy about the last funding of the government. Very little money for the wall, more for planned parenthood and other domestic programs. And certainly a great deal for the military which, at times, can resemble liberal domestic priorities. No wonder Schumer was so quick to claim victory.

Even in the realm of foreign policy, Trump may have pulled a fast one. Tillerson, McMaster, Nikki Haley and James Mattis are all hawks but clever in their approaches. Unlike John Bolton, they are not straightforward but no less as aggressive as the alleged “war monger.” Bolton is no more or less dangerous than the faction he challenges. True, he was an enthusiastic backer of the war in Iraq but at the time that faction was in the ascendance.

What makes Bolton useful is he provides Trump with a perfect foil. Like Richard Allen, who advised Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he is a hawkish ornament — shiny but not bothersome. Bolton is less likely to bring war than those clever defense intellectuals like McMaster, who are more willing to risk conflict on a theory. Trump, who finally has a man after his own temperament, can now claim the mantle of the adult in the room.

It is hard to declare independence but that is exactly what Trump did. The iron ring of neo-conservative control was cracked. Even the tariff decisions, as tepid as they appear, were nevertheless a statement that ideology was secondary to analysis. Anyone who thinks Bolton is somehow a radical departure from the old team has not been paying attention. Trump reasserted control but was not particularly clear in what direction he was going to exercise command.

Domestically, Trump never was particularly wedded to the murky politics of movement conservatives. The do-nothing approach of the “freedom caucus” and other such collections of zealots was bound to get old. Trump requires elbow room and these guys do not favor giving a president latitude.

The obsolete nature of conservative ideas are not to this president’s taste or to many of his GOP predecessors’. Richard Nixon founded the Gold Standard in 1971, embracing wage and price controls. Ronald Reagan dumped Alexander Haig as Secretary of State in 1983. George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990 and George W. Bush added a prescription drug benefit in 2001. Trump fell in line with this thinking in 2018. To be rigid is not thoughtful, to be pragmatic is preferable.