OPED: Can conservatism survive Trump?

Jay Caruso
Tribune News Service

Somehow, the nation survived the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.

So how did he do? Extreme partisans on both sides will declare it to be a rousing success or a magnificent failure. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Here's my report card on his first year.


Grade: A — Starting with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, Trump's most significant achievement over the courts of his first year clearly rests with the appointments to various federal courts. Granted, some of Trump's selections had to withdraw for lack of the qualifications necessary for a judicial appointment. But outside of a few a speed bumps, Trump's choices have been solid and will provide lasting benefits.


Grade: B-minus — Overall, I support the tax bill the president signed. The problem is, Trump and others in the GOP didn't just promise a tax-cut bill, they promised tax reform. While some elements of reform made it into the final version, the law offers far more in the way of cutting tax rates than it does reforming the system. Also, the tax cut will result in a budget deficit, rather than the revenue-neutral package the GOP promised.


Grade: C — Trump runs so hot and cold in the category that it's hard to pin him down. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was a fierce advocate for the U.S. while pushing back on Trump when necessary. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must be the most frustrated cabinet member. Tillerson seems to be doing his best, but Trump consistently undercuts him, making his job that much more difficult. On defense, Trump shows deference to military leaders and doesn't seem to question Defense Secretary James Mattis. For his part, Mattis put a death grip on ISIS and works diligently to restore military funding lost during budget sequestration a few years ago. Trump's immature tweets about North Korea and his poorly implemented travel ban also lose him points.


Grade: D-minus — Trump avoids an F because the tax bill also repealed the individual mandate. Outside of that, despite Trump's promises, he flopped mightily on health care, notably failing to reform the Affordable Care Act. Trump's unwillingness or inability to understand health-care policy made it difficult for him to sell it to the public. His comments were often laced with superlatives, but he couldn't explain how any of the bills worked. Couple that with his campaign promises for a bill that would cover "everybody" while repealing Obamacare, and the effort was doomed from the start.


Grade: F — President Trump's America-first approach to trade sounds good to many people, but it's dangerous. Trump has no concept of how trade works, what trade deficits mean (he seems to think the U.S. has to cut a check to Mexico or China for the value of the trade deficit and frames it in those terms) or understand the damage his threats of tariffs would have, especially on working-class Americans. His short-sighted withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will only strengthen China's hand in making trade deals with other countries. His threats to pull out of NAFTA would be disastrous for border states, notably Texas. It's proof that business experience doesn't mean someone understands how to govern effectively.


Grade F-minus-minus-minus — Trump's base will disagree, but nothing will define Trump's administration more than his behavior and temperament, and on that front, he's failing in a significant way. Trump's impetuousness and inability to deal with criticism compel him to lash out, bringing shame to the office of the president. He lies about the most insignificant issues. His attacks on members of Congress (including those in the GOP), the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community are disgraceful. His advocacy for prosecuting his political rivals provides ammunition for those who label him authoritarian. His constant attacks on the press, along with support for weakening libel laws to make it easier to sue the media, should concern any person with even a fraction of interest in the First Amendment.

It's the final grade that makes Trump so dangerous to the Republican Party and, especially, the conservative movement.

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That cannot happen when the president creates such a distaste for what he's doing because he can't control his impulses. Low unemployment, high GDP, a soaring stock market and the prospect of fewer taxes should leave Democrats fearing a significant loss in the midterms. Instead, the odds of them capturing the House grow every day. Congressional Republicans have been put into an impossible situation. They have to work with the president to push forward policies advocated by their constituents, but locking arms with Trump puts their long-term health in jeopardy.

It's hard to imagine a worse marketer of conservatism than Donald Trump. He's doing damage to the brand of conservatism. The question is whether it can survive after he's long gone.

— Jay Caruso is a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.