For a column that likes to look a little forward, the Trump presidency is a considerable roadblock. It won’t be possible to write with confidence about the American story until his administration is succeeded by the next. For that matter, Donald Trump himself can’t think very far ahead in these circumstances, and, while he improvises well, he is clearly not a man accustomed to planning well into the future.
So the intriguing question for the moment remains, what happens if the then 74-year-old Trump declares victory and doesn’t run again? What if he waits to announce, perhaps at the last possible moment, in July 2020, “I’ve accomplished what I was elected to do” and moves on to build his library? Sixty-year-old Vice President Mike Pence presumably would be more than ready to run.
It’s in this context that the latest developments should be understood – both his impending nomination of a second member to the Supreme Court and the planned trip to meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Both seem to me to bolster the likelihood that, when the time comes, Trump will prefer to be a one-term president rather than take his chances trying to win a second term.
There’s no arguing with the fact that Trump has a chance to influence the Supreme Court for another 20 to 25 years. But the course that any particular justice’s influence might take on a nine-person court is very hard to predict. The Senate is narrowly divided and that will constrain the choice. The president met June 28 at the White House with Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and the five senators whose votes will likely determine the fate of any nomination: Republicans Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; and Democrats Joe Donnelley, of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia,
As for the Helsinki meeting, Trump will talk to Putin about Syria and Iran, in hopes of finding some sort of mutual accommodation that might ratchet down the violence there. Some lifting of sanctions on trade will probably be part of the discussion. Putin may put back on the table the proposal for an across-the-board renormalization of relations that he privately transmitted through diplomatic channels last year. Trump may choose to talk instead of the joint measures against election-tampering that he broached, then backed away from, a year ago. He promised to “talk about everything” when the two meet. “Perhaps the world can de-escalate,” the president said. “We might be talking about some things President Obama lost.”
Obama’s foreign policy is not the issue. Even without Trump, American voters are probably returning to the realist, balance-of-power view of relations with Russia that dominated U.S. politics for the 45 years of the Cold War. The conviction that the United States is duty-bound to spread its values around the world, associated with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, has been losing force everywhere but the Atlantic Council.
In this view, foreign policy towards Russia is a sideshow that will largely take care of itself. The real story is Trump himself. What got him elected was his tough talk on immigration and trade. What sustains his popularity, as best I can tell, is the very considerable set of skills he acquired as a reality-TV performer on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice. In this respect, Trump is like Ronald Reagan.
In every other respect, he is different. Reagan stressed alliances; Trump breaks them apart. Reagan was cheerful and friendly; Trump is a bully and a boor. Reagan made some bad appointments; Trump appointees have committed wholesale administrative vandalism. Reagan had confidence in the verdict of history; Trump makes war on it. The Iran-Contra hearings failed to seriously touch Reagan; the Mueller probe remains a dagger at the heart of Trump’s current term.
So see what happens in the November mid-term elections. Pay careful attention to polls next year. Much depends on who wins the Democratic primaries. Then there will be the 2020 congressional elections to consider – what if the Dems take back both houses? Where would be the fun in that? And, of course, keep an eye on the bond market, that harbinger of recession. It is always possible that Trump will run the table and, like Clinton, Bush, and Obama, settle into a second term more comfortable than the one before. I put the chances at one in three.
David Warsh, a Somerville, Mass.-based longtime columnist and economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com