The True Trump Takeaway

He's ridin' high in the polls. He's maintained altitude longer than most of the pundits predicted he could or would. And the media is compelled to cover (smother) him as long as his numbers hold. But set aside the circus and prognostications for a moment -- could Donald Trump actually govern effectively as a U.S. president?


If you ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the answer is an unequivocal "no." Why? Because his skill set is not "transferable to a government setting."

We should stipulate that Christie, along with more than a dozen other Republican presidential candidates and their strategists, are laying awake at night trying to devise new ways to steal some of the spotlight away from Trump (witness Mike Huckabee's Holocaust reference and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz calling his Majority Leader a liar right on the Senate floor). But in Christie's elaboration of his claim, we hear a line of logic that's been sorely lacking from the Trump coverage:

"Donald would tell Speaker Boehner, 'I want this bill and I want it on my desk because this is what's best for America.' And Speaker Boehner is going to say, "Yeah? Well I don't have the votes for that, so I can't give it to you.' He can't look at him and say 'Speaker Boehner, you're fired.' You can't do that. You can do it on a reality TV show, but you cannot fire the Speaker of the House, or the Senate Majority Leader, because you don't get what you want."

It's a bit ironic that this rational, common sense diagnosis of what a Trump presidency might look like comes from a candidate and governor who himself has publicly called reporters "idiots" and told them to "shut up." At the same time, reporters are not Christie's government colleagues in the same way members of the legislature are. This is why for the most part, even when we hear our candidates and elected leaders disagree with each other, we usually don't hear personal slurs. It happens now and again. But Joe Wilson's "You lie" accusation at the President in a televised joint session of Congress was huge news because of just how rare it was as a public show of bombastic, personal animosity.

But for Trump, so far, it has been the norm: "They're rapists." "He (U.S. Senator John McCain) was a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured." He "graduated last in his class at Annapolis - dummy." "He (Governor Rick Perry) should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate." Trump's "not a fan of Jeb Bush." Trump calls U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham an "idiot" and a "lightweight."

Of Trump's thumps, Governor Bush responded: "The problem with Mr. Trump's language is it's divisive, it's ugly, it's mean-spirited." Governor Perry similarly returned serve: "He offers a barking carnival act that can best be described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense." A bit more irony there, as some would level the same charge at some of Perry's past comments (think: Texas secession). Still, while these observations will resonate with a ton of Americans who aren't part of the 15-25 percent of Republicans polled who support Trump, they still don't get to the larger question about his candidacy -- and by extension -- our system.

In the United States, every single president we've elected had prior government service. Most were either vice presidents or governors before serving in the White House. Barack Obama was only the third U.S. Senator to directly advance to the presidency from that body over the last century.

By most objective standards, Donald Trump is a highly skilled businessman -- a billionaire proficient at building profit and attracting attention through grandiose behavior. In his case those two traits have been mutually beneficial, and time will tell whether his nascent presidential campaign is only part of that larger profit imperative. But whether the campaign is real or not, it's a genuine teachable moment, and Christie's comment is at the root of the lesson.

For many, it's a comforting thought to believe that if only we had a successful, bold CEO in the White House, our government would work with an efficiency approaching the level of a highly profitable corporation. But even folks with a hazy memory of grade school civics will come to realize that this is not a realistic notion in our democracy. Christie just spells it out clearly and succinctly. An individual elected governor or president is afforded a great degree of power, either by respective state or U.S. Constitution. At the same time, and by very intentional design, our heads of state are constrained by the constitutional imperative to work with a legislative branch that also possesses great powers -- if not always exercised.

Trump may be aware of this on some level, but his public comments show no evidence of it. Conversely, most of the other candidates are aware of it from actual personal experience, either as legislators or governors (excepting former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson). The tone and substance of all of these candidates are in contrast to Trump. This is not to say that their public comments do not offend on occasion, but most of them seem to realize that whatever they do say on the record, they will need to live with those remarks if actually elected. Words matter. In politics and government, they matter a great deal. Mature elected leaders know this, and most of them understand the consequences of the scorched-earth tactics.

Trump insists he'll build a wall along our southwestern border and force Mexico to pay for it. Trump says he would love a trade war with China. Trump says he'll put Sarah Palin in his cabinet. Like any of these ideas? Whether you do or you don't, our U.S. president does not have unilateral power to make them realities. In our country we have something called the U.S. Congress. It is designated as the "first branch" of our federal government, and sits right up front in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Like it or not (and record low numbers of Americans express confidence in Congress), our president is required by law to work with the U.S. House and Senate to pass legislation. This is no easy task, even when the chambers are controlled by the same party that occupies the White House. This is the way it's supposed to be.

But the problems in Congress make it exponentially harder to move the country forward than at any time in recent memory. Earlier this week former Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-KS) returned to the Capitol to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (passed overwhelmingly in both houses). Dole explained to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank why bipartisanship used to work: "We were D's and R's, but beyond that we were friends. We worked together because it was the right thing to do."

So is it just the personalities in Congress that are different? Don't fall for it. Americans have geographically self-sorted themselves regionally over the last few decades -- that's a fact. But there are structural reasons for the breakdown, too. The flood of money washing through the system, the most rigged U.S. House races in modern history, and the rules in the Senate that have allowed for a record-breaking level of obstruction tactics. Even if Dole is right that our elected leaders today are more lacking in leadership, the rules make it even harder. We ignore these real impediments at our peril.

Right now, and for the next 15 months, the media will focus its political coverage for the most part on the presidential horserace as opposed to the defective legislative branch that any winner will have to negotiate with for at least four years. The narrative of presidential politics is easier to convey and more entertaining to consume.

If American history is any guide, Donald Trump will not be elected president. This is not to say it's impossible. But beyond ruminating over the odds of his success, or being amused by the sideshow that Trump's been able to bump up onto the main stage, sooner or later we'll need to come to agreement about the structural defects that are severely damaging the congressional product we're all paying for. That's the lesson that lies underneath the carnival show. No matter whom we elect president, that person alone cannot repair a busted government -- and that person will be called upon to work with both houses of Congress that have their own internal dysfunction. Ultimately, only the American electorate has the power to change this dynamic by learning about that dysfunction's core causes, and harnessing that knowledge to reform the rules, and restore the system.