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The Limits of a Disruptive Presidency Exposed (Washington Examiner) January 28, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

As we mark the halfway point of President Trump’s term, we might ask ourselves how a disrupter presidency has been working for the country — or for him. That term seems to be the one that best characterizes his presidency: First disrupting the Republican Party and presidential campaigns, then presidential style and communication, government policy, foreign alliances, and then the partial closure of the federal government itself.

Disruption is primarily a Silicon Valley term, describing how an innovator or entrepreneur starts a new business that disrupts and changes an entire industry. The originator of the term, professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, called it a process by which a company offers cheaper products to new customers, forcing the existing providers to respond and a whole line of business to change. Uber is Exhibit A, offering its cheaper rides in private cars and disrupting the entire taxi and transportation industries. Amazon is another example, replacing bookstores and shopping malls with a different kind of retail shopping.

There is a case that the federal government greatly needs disrupting. President Ronald Reagan spoke of government as the problem and sought to push power and money back to the states and to individuals, but the federal juggernaut largely rolled on. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore tried reinventing government, but little changed. Many voters found Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington as a way to undertake fundamental change that was long overdue.

But leading the federal government as disrupter-in-chief turns out to be both difficult and limited in its long-term effect. For starters, there is really no way to carry out a Silicon Valley-style disruption by creating an alternative to how the federal government operates. There is no Uber or Amazon that we can develop in a skunkworks and spring on our nation’s capital. Consequently, Trump has been left to disrupt as more of a wrecking ball than as an innovator.

Trump mostly disrupts by saying “no” — no to the Paris Climate Accords, to NAFTA, to former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations, to the continuing operation of the federal government. He wanted to say “no” to Obamacare, too, but that required more than a presidential pronouncement or executive order and he was not able to build the legislative coalition to accomplish it. So far, his only major legislative policy initiative has been tax reform, and the jury is out on that one, with tax revenues down so far in a growing economy.

Saying “no” to the status quo in Washington is not entirely wrongheaded. As former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., said when he was referred to as Senator Gridlock, “There are a lot of bad ideas in Washington, and somebody needs to stop them.” But a true disrupter wants to change the way things are done, and that requires new ideas to replace the old. We know that Trump can say “no,” but what will he say “yes” to? Moreover, if he develops more of a policy agenda for the remainder of his term, will he be able to get it through the Congress or instead be limited to what he can do on his own? With a divided government and uneasy relationships with congressional leaders in his own party, how could President Trump rally major legislative accomplishments to complete the disrupter cycle?

One would have to predict more unilateral action by President Trump in the next two years — more speeches, tweets, executive orders, and unilateral actions. But little longer-term innovation of a new Washington will follow the disruption. As we have learned from Trump’s reversal of many of Obama’s executive orders, unilateral presidential action is short-term and easily undone.

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wisely said that a week is a long time in politics, so looking out two years is risky business. Still, it is difficult to see from here how a disrupter presidency based on saying “no” to business as usual could begin a real, and needed, transformation of Washington.

Two years in, we see more clearly the limits of a disrupter presidency.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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