Political junkies are so hung up on message, strategy and poll numbers that sometimes we lose sight of the basic question: Who would be a better president–doing the job, day-in and day-out? Who would really be able to turn things around, because battles are won and lost, but the only thing that matters in war is taking and holding ground.
If you want to skip to my thoughts on Trump, Cruz and Rubio in office, scroll down, or keep reading for my thoughts on Trump as a candidate.
I admit I’ve always been a vocal critic of Donald Trump, the politician. As a businessman and a reality show star, meh. I never really watched him. I also must admit I never read “The Art of the Deal,” which I suppose places me with the majority of Trump supporters who also never read it.
But from what I do know about the man, Trump is, and has always been one thing his whole life: A game-changer.
Game-changers tend to be divisive, disruptive, and the successful ones at least, filthy rich. But they have a flaw. As Obi-Wan told Anakin, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Game-changers like Trump deal in absolutes: Either you’re with them, or you’re against them.
(If you want to know my history writing about Trump this election cycle since July, go here; it’s my personal blog, so be warned: You get what you get.)
Trump has changed the presidential game in so many ways that it will take years to fully appreciate them.
- Overturned assumptions about “outsider” candidates with high name-recognition;
- Disrupted polling statistical assumptions about voter base and likely voters;
- Destroyed conventional wisdom about gaffes and reactions;
- Revealed the political media’s profit-motive in ways nobody else has ever done;
- Prevailed in negative attacks on other candidates, and didn’t fall when others attacked him.
There’s probably plenty more, which will become apparent with time. The art of Trump’s deal is that he’ll deal with anyone–anyone at all–if he sets the terms. Want him to not commit to a third-party run? Sure, he’ll sign, after he refused to commit, and if Reince Priebus would demonstrate fealty to him by coming to New York for the signing ceremony. Want him to be in a debate that the RNC controls? He’ll run roughshod over everybody, knowing the press craves his face-time on air. I could go on and on.
If you praise Donald, he’ll thank you kindly, because it’s never personal. He’ll even thank budding despots like Vladimir Putin. Trump holds no grudges, but at the same time, he doesn’t ever concede. He wasn’t lying when he said he’d get along with everyone, but not everyone will get along with him.
But would that make him a good president?
Disclosure: I am supporting Cruz, as long as he’s in the race. Rubio would be my second choice. I vacillate between saying “I wouldn’t vote for Trump if Satan was running against him” and justifying how it might not be so bad after all. Just considering a President Trump makes my head hurt.
Here’s how I see them, should any of the three make it to the Oval Office.
Trump: Game-changers, in general, make horrible presidents, unless everyone is behind them. Kennedy was a game-changer in many ways, but the entire country was more homogenous then, and Kennedy wasn’t necessarily universally loved like the Democratic hagiographic narrative asserts. Trump is no Kennedy.
Coming into office, Trump will appoint people he considers competent to cabinet positions, and they will be almost universally hated, rejected, and undermined in their positions. Even in the DoD, politics plays hardball, and Trump would face opponents who could not easily be removed (Obama has tried very hard to remove his opponents).
The government is simply too big to be micromanaged, and although Trump will appeal to the “everyman” to elevate him to high ground, the sausage-making itself will overwhelm his time and energy. He’ll either end up a “TV” president or impeached for some (I won’t say “trumped up”) inflated charge.
“But what about Reagan?” Trump is no Reagan. Reagan had conservative chops and deep roots in the GOP, with many in government who would follow him into Hell on horseback. Trump has no such cadre; he’s only got his deals. They won’t be enough to save him.
Trump has to show he’s more than just a game-changer in politics–that he can also be a statesman. In that, he’s got a long road ahead.
Cruz: Ted Cruz would arguably be the smartest man in the White House since James Madison. Then again, Woodrow Wilson, another Princeton alum, was ridiculously smart, and absolutely horrible for America. Smart doesn’t means successful. Bill Clinton is one of the smartest men on the planet–had he decided to go into physics rather than law he might have had a Nobel, physics being one of the few remaining fields where your work is evaluated independent of your personal life (which is why there are so many quirky physicists).
Cruz would rely on his famous debating skills and conservative pedigree to out-Obama Obama’s legacy, but in reverse. I believe every word of his “on day one” spiel. But ultimately, he would face what happened to John Adams, being labeled “obnoxious and disliked.” Even Matt Yglesias had to acknowledge that being disliked doesn’t mean Cruz would be ineffective.
Make no mistake. A Cruz presidency would get things done. As much as Obama screwed up the country in eight years, Cruz would turn it back to Constitutional, conservative values. The left will be kicking and screaming bloody murder every day Cruz is in office. Conservatives will never have so much fun. But it will be difficult, and those who crave being liked or agreed with will suffer.
The big risk is that with enough pushback, the Democrats would retake Congress. But in war, battles are won and lost; what matters most is taking and keeping ground. Cruz would take ground and keep it.
Rubio: Comparing Rubio with other presidents risks smearing him, so I won’t go there. Rubio is a good man. He’s a genuine conservative. He’s got some policy chops. And most of all, Rubio listens. That sets him apart from either Cruz or Trump, neither of whom listen in the sense of letting themselves be influenced. (Trump listens so he can determine the best message; Cruz listens so he can crush an argument.)
There’s a good side of listening. When the country genuinely feels the president has their ear, and cares, it spreads good feelings. George W. Bush had this quality at times. But like Bush, Rubio will face constant pressure and attack to change his principles. And he’ll receive lots of advice from those he considers his allies.
Discerning the good from the bad advice, and the valid concerns from the manipulations will be Rubio’s biggest challenge. He leads with his heart, and the as the Bible says, the heart is deceptive. The GOP could prosper under a Rubio presidency, but it could also get too comfortable. Under Bush, many measures only went halfway–we didn’t do anything about abortion, for instance. Bloated initiatives like No Child Left Behind became law. Congress ran roughshod because Bush buried his veto pen.
There’s a risk with Rubio that he would be liked, but relatively ineffective. It will take a very strong hand to undo the considerable damage Obama has done, and that will cross some people. If Congress becomes a GOP country club, rife with scandals waiting in dark closets, then a Rubio presidency could be marred in ways Cruz or Trump would not allow.
Who would make the best president? I would be okay with Cruz or Rubio–Trump has a long way to go to win me.