“Marvin ... What do we do now?”
These words are spoken by Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972) after his character, Bill McKay, won a surprising come-from-behind U.S. Senate election against a powerful and entrenched incumbent. They beautifully capture what happens to candidates as they transition from campaigning to governing and confront the reality that governing demands different skills and raises new questions. What promises do you most intend to keep? Whose support are you most willing to risks to accomplish your policy goals?
Barack Obama faced these questions in light of his remarkable and inspiring ‘Hope and Change” campaign. In governing, he proved to be more of moderate (and, perhaps ironically, more Clinton-like) than many of his supporters had believed or hope. Donald Trump’s campaign―equally remarkable but far less inspiring―will confront similar challenges. If to govern is to choose, the question remains as to how and what Donald Trump will choose? For a candidate precariously balanced between populist and ideological conservatives, his choices will be neither easy nor cost-free.
We make no pretense that we know the answer as to what Donald Trump should or will do, but instead offer three models of governing. The first―and least palatable―is to govern as a partisan ideologue. Most partisans overreach, sowing the seeds of their own destruction by reaching beyond their electoral mandate to enact sweeping change. Mandates, after all, are mostly fictions created out of press and campaign narratives.
If Trump does have a mandate, it is incredibly thin. The surprise of his victory may make his margin seem larger and more overwhelming than it actually was. In reality, of course, he won not by winning the most votes but by winning in the right places. This is no Ronald Reagan landslide and it pales in comparison to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. This isn’t to detract from his victory, only to state the obvious: More Americans voted against Donald Trump than voted for him. To fail to acknowledge this and to overreach will almost certainly and quickly deplenish his political capital.
Given his narrow victory, Trump might be better served by looking to Bill Clinton’s governing model after the 1994 Republican Revolution. Post-1994, Clinton governed via triangulation (a dirty word in more liberal circles) in which he positioned himself between Congressional Republicans on his right and Congressional Democrats on his left. His policy moderation (arguably) improved public approval ratings, saved his presidency, and helped him survive impeachment.
With the freedom caucus in the U.S. House, Trump is especially well-positioned to occupy the middle ground of American politics. His promises to rebuild inner cities and invest in infrastructure, for example, provide the sort of economic stimulus plan that would have been summarily dismissed by congressional Republicans had they originated from a President Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama.
As an alternative to Clinton’s triangulation, Trump might prefer instead to imitate Ronald Reagan by crafting a tough talking public image but also finding common ground to compromise. The mythical Reagan governed like Dirty Harry, daring liberals and Democrats to defy him. The actual Reagan built a bipartisan coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans to enact his legislative agenda. [You might even say Reagan had different stance in public than he had in private].
Either of these latter approaches offer a better model for a Trump Presidency than engaging in partisan overreach. First, there is the political reality. Despite Trump’s victory, the country remains deeply divided, and fairly minor shifts in the two-party vote could yield a very different outcome in the 2018 midterm elections or the 2020 presidential election. Second, no longer a candidate, President Trump will ultimately be held accountable for the state of the country. This requires policies that improve the economic realities confronting Trump Democrats (as well as other Americans) - and not just policies that reward ideological interests. These voters expect something different than what conservative Republican traditionally offers, i.e., small government and tax cuts. They expect government to play an active role in bringing jobs and industry back to their local communities.