More Chaos Doesn’t Call for Less Government

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Is President Donald Trump destroying the ability of the U.S. government to function normally at all?

That’s the question Dan Drezner raised in a smart column before the Helsinki summit demonstrated just how badly the administration is running. 

I think there are three separate issues here:

  • One is the White House itself, which is pretty clearly understaffed, with a succession of under- or unqualified people in key posts and, despite some attempts at normalcy when Chief of Staff John Kelly came on board, a strong tendency to revert to chaos. With, as we saw throughout Trump’s European trip, ugly and embarrassing — and dangerous — results. Remember too that we’re only seeing the process failures, but the classic White House job of coordinating the various executive-branch departments and agencies is almost certainly just not getting done, with all kinds of unpredictable results, many of which are scary indeed. 
  • A second is the general failure of the Republican Party to cultivate and train its next generation of party professionals. Some of that preceded Trump; some of it is getting worse as a result of his presidency. It also varies by policy area. In national security and foreign policy, Republicans never did come to terms with the George W. Bush administration’s failure in Iraq. It took Democrats years — and considerable turmoil — to bounce back from Vietnam; Republicans have ignored the problem of having so many of their experts discredited by what happened in Iraq, and that creates a whole different set of problems than purging people did for Democrats. At any rate, it’s hard to see a cadre of Republican professionals emerging from the Trump administration to become the leaders of the next Republican presidency, and it’s not as if Congress is producing a replacement group of governing experts. 
  • Then there’s the deterioration of neutral expertise within the various executive-branch departments and agencies. Drezner has anecdotal evidence that it’s happening, and I’m sure it is. On the other hand, I heard similar stories during Republican administrations (and occasionally Democratic ones) going back to Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. So far, I haven’t seen any systematic evidence of just how bad the problem is. That’s not to make light of the problem; once the U.S. government resumes doing such things as negotiating trade deals, it’s going to need experts that know all the technical details of how to do it. It’s not clear to me so far, however, whether we’re talking about some fairly normal deterioration or a sudden collapse in government capacity.

While liberals clearly have reason to worry about government’s capacity, conservatives — even small-government conservatives — should worry about it, too. It’s as necessary to have expertise to wind down government involvement in any particular task as it is to ramp up that involvement. The idea that chaos and bad government inevitably lead to a demand for less government is simply wrong … as anyone who remembers the electoral consequences of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and a rather large recession could remind us. 

1. Don’t miss Julia Azari at Mischiefs of Faction on the superdelegates debate. This is very good: Being fair to specific candidates is “just not what seeking high office is about. There’s no set of values that requires everyone to have a fair shot.” Exactly correct. Fairness to party groups? Yes, although, as she explains, it’s not clear exactly what that demands. Fairness to candidates? No.  

2. Brian Palmer-Rubin at the Monkey Cage on Mexico’s new approach to Nafta

3. Also at the Monkey Cage: Sam Winter-Levy and Alasdair Phillips-Robins on Brexit after Trump’s U.K. visit.

4. Matt Glassman on the procedural wrinkles facing a possible impeachment resolution against Rod Rosenstein.

5. Margaret Sullivan on the news media after Helsinki

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake on the Helsinki news conference.

7. Kevin Drum collects quotes about the Helsinki news conference.

8. Alex Massie on Theresa May — still there

9. And Seth Masket on how the Trump-era Republican Party raises new challenges for political science professors. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a classroom, but I encountered some of these issues as far back as the George W. Bush presidency, and I can only imagine it’s become a whole lot more difficult now. 

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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