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Trump is No Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater or Wallace (Washington Examiner) August 7, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

The hype of a presidential campaign — on steroids this year with a pandemic and an economic crisis — means a silly season is upon us. Among the silliness are claims that President Trump is similar to some other Republican president, such as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, or a controversial losing candidate from the past, namely Barry Goldwater or George Wallace.

Sorry folks, but Trump is sui generis — his own man.

Trump says he “learned a lot from Nixon,” to which Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean says, “hooey.” Trump’s foreign policy reminds some of Reagan, while others are quick to say Trump is no Reagan. One columnist finds parallels between Trump and Wallace, while others debate whether Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party parallels that of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

To all this, I say: Pump the brakes. There is no modern presidency like Trump’s.

I start from the premise that there are two kinds of Republican presidents: prophets and pragmatists. The prophets, similar to John the Baptist of biblical times, emerge from the wilderness with fervor and a philosophy. Goldwater was such a prophet, seeing dangers in a growing federal government, with its invasions of personal liberty and states’ rights. So was Wallace, a Southern Democrat, with his singular focus on law and order, fueled by racism. Prophets rarely win popularity contests, and the country was not ready to elect either Goldwater or Wallace, though Goldwater did pave the way for Reagan, another conservative.

The list of Republican pragmatists is longer, and they enjoyed greater electoral success. Nixon talked the conservative talk of law and order, but he was also the president who walked a big government walk and gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and wage and price controls. President George W. Bush tried to split the difference between philosophy and pragmatism, calling himself a “compassionate conservative” when he campaigned for the presidency, but following Sept. 11, he grew federal spending dramatically, cut back on individual rights, and threw in a large increase in prescription drug support for seniors. A businessman, Mitt Romney was a classic pragmatist, unable to establish a conservative philosophy as a candidate, and accused rightly of flip-flopping on issues.

Reagan was the rare exception to the prophet versus pragmatist rule, embracing a little of both. He had a strong conservative philosophy, but he was able to make enough deals with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and others to keep the government moving ahead. His pragmatism was evident in his famous statement about compromising with Congress: “Half a loaf is better than none.”

A businessman who had never run for office before his presidential campaign, Trump is a kind of pragmatist, doing what he thinks makes sense in the moment. Yet, his business was essentially a family business, built on his father’s money and his own fame and branding. So the art of compromise and deliberation, or the management of a large bureaucracy, was never a part of Trump’s toolkit.

As it has turned out, Trump won his office not so much to govern, as Nixon and Reagan did, as to extend his brand and build his base. In the coronavirus crisis, he largely turned things over to the governors but continued to cajole and harass them from his platform. His only major legislative win has been tax reform, with another major promise, overturning Obamacare, out of his reach. Unlike Republican presidents before him, his key tools of leadership have been executive orders and his Twitter account.

What we wonder is how much of this change from Nixon and Reagan to Trump is Trump himself, and how much of it may be a function of the times in which we live? In an era of political hyperpartisanship, Trump has shown us that tools of mass communication are still readily available to a president when compromise has become a dirty word and actual governing seems too difficult. In that sense, these are not times that Nixon or Reagan experienced, nor is this a presidency that springs from their legacy.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:



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