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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting elected is different from governing

Corresponding with a friend in the U.K., I found myself explaining why President Donald Trump did not have enough support from Republicans in Congress to repeal Obamacare. In countries like the U.K. that use the Westminster system, failure of a prime minister to win a big vote often leads to dissolution of Parliament and a new election. The U.S. Congress isn't like that.

But more importantly, the episode illuminates the difference between getting elected and governing. The former takes only a crude coalition of voters on a given day. In the case of Trump, he was elected by an uncohesive coalition:

  • Middle-class Americans aggrieved by lost economic opportunity, allegedly attributable to globalization.
  • Religious conservatives.
  • Secular but ideological conservatives (e.g. Ayn Rand followers, deficit hawks), many of whom lean Libertarian.
  • Upper-class New England elites (a traditional Republican constituency).
  • The wealthy who want their taxes reduced.
  • The military-industrial complex that wants an increase in defense spending.
Trump and his campaign operatives succeeded in getting such a diverse coalition into polling booths last November in sufficient quantity to win… a remarkable achievement, regardless of one's political persuasion. Governing, however, requires a carefully crafted, long-term coalition of politicians and political agents. The six groups I've identified have different ideas about what Trump should do in office. It's no surprise that the Trump administration appears inconsistent.

By the way, this situation is not unique to Trump or even the Republican Party. Democratic President Jimmy Carter had basically the same situation in 1977, and like Trump he tended to staff the Oval Office and his Cabinet with people from outside Washington. Although the post-1981 Carter became a figure beloved by nearly everyone, the pre-1981 Carter was so unpopular that he failed to win reelection. Indeed, Senator Ted Kennedy nearly defeated Carter for the Democratic nomination.

Will 2020 be a repeat of 1980?