November’s midterm election delivered a mixed verdict on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Democrats made gains in the House that were roughly consistent with the historical average for an out-of-power party in a midterm election, while Trump and the Republicans, taking advantage of a favorable electoral map, managed to strengthen their majority control over the Senate. But the midterm election, for the most part, was not fought over specific issues. If it had been, Republicans would probably have done much better, given the strong improvement of the national economy following the enactment of his tax cut bill. Instead, Democrats, with the help of the mainstream media, turned it into a referendum on the president’s personality.
President Donald Trump remains the most dominating single figure in American politics. He manages to keep his name in the headlines, and does not seem to care whether the stories are positive or negative, as long as they are about him. Trump’s volatile, disruptive and often inconsistent approach to governing and his provocative personal style not only dominate each news cycle, they tend to overpower individual issues. Because of their overwhelming bias, either for or against Trump, reporters tend to work the latest Trump headline into their established view of him and his presidency, whether it is supportive or critical.
In the case of Trump’s enemies, their hatred for the president is so obsessive that it routinely causes them to reverse their traditional positions if it doesn’t fit with their conviction that everything Trump does must be wrong.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS START FAVORING MILITARY ENGAGEMENTS
For example, since the Vietnam War era, liberal Democrats have historically opposed sending US military forces into open-ended wars and military campaigns without congressional authorization. Yet, when Trump announced two weeks ago that he was declaring victory over the war against ISIS and pulling US troops out of Syria, Democrats claimed that it was “irresponsible” and “hasty,” even though Congress had never debated or approved the US military involvement there.
Similarly, President Barack Obama and his Democrat supporters consistently rejected arguments made by his Republican critics that the US had to maintain its armed involvement in the Middle East to “fight enemies like ISIS abroad, so we do not have to fight them in our own schools, churches and airports,” yet that is exactly the argument that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough made to condemn Trump as a “quivering coward” for announcing his decision to pull US troops out of Syria.
REVERSAL ON THE BORDER FENCE
The same is true for domestic policies, such as border control. In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, with the support bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, which called for the construction of 600 miles of multilayer fencing along the US-Mexico border. Senate Democrats who voted for that legislation included Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, Debbie Stabenow, and Sherrod Brown. The same Democrats voted for a 700-mile long border fence in the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2013 as part of a larger package of immigration policy reforms, including the end of the lottery visa and a modification of chain migration rules. Yet when Trump proposed the same things to Democrat leaders, including Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in January, they rejected the offer, and two weeks ago, they refused Trump’s demand for a $5 billion down payment on the same kind of fence to be included in the continuing resolution that would be required to fund the operation of about 25% of the federal government. Now Nancy Pelosi calls the border fence “immoral,” while several would-be Democrat 2020 presidential candidates are now publicly calling for the dissolution of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and suggesting that the US has no right to turn away the caravans of illegal immigrants flocking to the US-Mexican border and demanding entry.
Democrats are now defining themselves by their antipathy to Trump’s policies. Whatever Trump supports, Democrats oppose, and vice versa, regardless of their previous political or ideological positions.
For example, during the early years of the Cold War, conservative Republicans, such as the notorious Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, created a nationwide “red scare” by recklessly accusing hundreds of liberal Democrats who worked for the federal government or in the entertainment media of being Soviet spies or Communist fellow-travelers, ruining their careers and reputations by putting them on a blacklist. For the past two years, Democrats, including the socialist activists who now dominate the “progressive” left wing of that party, have adopted the same tactics. Without any credible evidence, they accuse Donald Trump of having colluded with the Russians to “steal” the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton and use that excuse to justify their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Trump’s presidency. Even worse, they promote the practice “guilt by association” by accusing anyone with alleged connections to the Russians, including everyone who is still supporting President Trump, of being “traitors” to American principles.
The Democrats have totally identified themselves with the “resistance” to Trump’s presidency, even if it means turning their backs on the core democratic liberal values the party had stood for since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Similarly, the wholesale retirement or defeat of Trump’s most outspoken critics within the GOP before the midterms has ceded to him effective control of the party which, despite its midterm losses, still dominates most of the “flyover” states.
Barring serious and unforeseen disclosures about Trump from investigations by Mueller of congressional Democrats, this country now faces two years of even more bitterly divided government. While Trump’s political enemies are more eager than ever to replace him, the Democrat majority in the House means that now have a clear duty to work him or risk alienating the voters they are counting on to turn Trump out of the White House in 2020.
FAKE NEWS AND THE DEATH OF MODERN JOURNALISM
The task is more difficult because there are few truly honest brokers working in the public interest left in Washington, and the concept of fake news has now been embraced on both sides. Once-respected journalists are increasingly invoking arguments of moral necessity and national security to excuse the abandonment of their journalistic principles.
That is why, at this turning point in Trump’s first term as president, there is an urgent need for an honest evaluation of his first two years as president, if only to take stock of our country’s current position and needs in order to chart the way forward.
Here is a report card on Donald Trump’s presidency to date, taken issue by issue, including the good, the bad, and the still undetermined.
After a shaky start, Trump has won the trust of the supporters of Israel and the Israeli government in his good faith commitment to Israel’s security, his recognition of Israel as America’s most reliable ally in the Middle East, and perhaps the entire world, and his demand that Israel be treated fairly as a legitimate and sovereign member of the community of nations.
Trump distinguished himself from his presidential predecessors by recognizing Israel’s right to designate Yerushalayim its capital and moving the US embassy there, fulfilling a legal commitment made by Congress in 1995, over the heated objections of many foreign relations experts.
While those moves were largely symbolic, Trump took concrete action, overruling the objections of European allies, to walk away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reinstate tough US financial and oil export sanctions on Iran. No more secret night flights of cash will be sent to Teheran, and the US will not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons when the restrictions in Obama’s deal were set to expire.
Trump also changed the ground rules for Middle East peacemaking, while making it clear that the US would no longer support a Palestinian entity which tolerates terrorism and which refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy or bargain for peace with it in good faith. Trump and his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, insisted on fair treatment for Israel.
Trump has also supported Israel’s de facto alliance with its former Sunni enemies against the spreading influence of Iran and Islamic terrorism throughout the region, including close cooperation with the current Egyptian government.
While there is legitimate concern about the concessions to the Palestinians Trump has said he will demand from Israel in the peace plan developed by Jared Kushner, in the meantime, the administration has permitted Israel to further develop its permanent presence in the West Bank, and supported its right to defend itself against Hamas attacks from Gaza.
Finally, Trump’s personal friendship with Prime Minister Netanyahu is far preferable to the climate of suspicion and distrust which poisoned Israel’s relationship with President Obama.
- Religious Freedom and Fighting Anti-Semitism
The Jewish community recently celebrated the first anniversary of President Trump’s commutation of the harsh 27-year prison sentence which was imposed on Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, due in large part to the misconduct of federal prosecutors. The end of Rubashkin’s eight-year ordeal in federal prison was a vindication of the rule of law in the United States and the answer to the tefillos of Jews around the world.
The support of the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for private school tuition vouchers is a cause for hope for every family with a child in yeshiva. The Trump administration has also been active in defending the constitutional rights of all Americans against those who would use the power of government to infringe on religious beliefs, such as the recent secular curriculum decree by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commissioner for the New York State Department of Education.
Trump’s critics have complained that his frequent calls to put “America First” have attracted support from white racist extremists who are also anti-Semitic. Spokesmen for secular and liberal Jewish groups have always been quick to claim that Trump’s refusal to meet their demands that he constantly condemn his racist supporters encourages the anti-Semites to act on their biases. Trump has spoken out on several occasions against anti-Semitism over the past two years. He has also demonstrated his personal support for Israel and the Jewish people, but usually at times and places of his own choosing rather than those of his critics.
Most recently, when Trump and his wife chose to take time out from campaigning just days before the November midterm election to pay a condolence call to the Pittsburgh Jewish community in the wake of the deadly synagogue shooting there, those Jews who were so critical of his silence previously chose to publicly demonstrate against him even when he was expressing the right sentiment. On that occasion, it could be said that the actions by Trump’s critics cast more doubt on their sincerity than that of the president.
- Appointing Conservative Judges to Federal Courts
The selection and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a justice of the Supreme Court was an example of political courage and determination by the Trump White House, foiling a crude campaign to smear the reputation of a good man which had been orchestrated by the president’s political enemies, with the complicity of the mainstream media. Kavanaugh, as the second Trump conservative pick alongside Neil Gorsuch, assures that the Supreme Court will no longer be used as a rubber stamp for activist liberal judges seeking to invent new “constitutional rights” which this country’s Founding Fathers had never intended. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, over the next two years Trump will continue to oversee the appointment of dozens of conservative judges to open positions on lower federal courts across the country. McConnell has supervised the confirmation of 85 judges over the past two years, with more to come from the Republican-controlled Senate over the next two years. Even if Trump leaves office after his first term, by 2020 he will have set a conservative orientation for the entire federal court bench that will last for decades to come.
- Restoring American Prosperity
American businesses responded positively to Trump’s tax cut bill, which featured a major cut in corporate tax rates, and incentives for business investment unleashed a surge of economic growth that is leading the Western world. New job creation has drawn large numbers of discouraged workers back into the US labor force and enabled millions to leave the welfare rolls. Low paid workers, including blacks and Hispanics, are enjoying some of the lowest rates of unemployment in history and the fastest increases in their wages in a decade. Meanwhile, inflation remains in check, while Trump’s drive to remove unnecessary government regulation has made American businesses more productive.
Consumer tax cuts were much smaller and were applied unevenly, but consumer confidence and spending are at near record levels, suggesting that economic growth will remain strong through 2019. Filling out federal tax returns was simplified for most, but homeowners and residents of high tax states suffered disproportionately with a sharp reduction in deductions for real estate and state and local income taxes. Further legislation is still needed to complete the long-needed supply-side economic reforms that last year’s tax cut began.
- Fighting for Fairer Trade
American workers who had been losing their good jobs to unfair competition from China and Mexico for decades have found a champion in Donald Trump. Defying the experts who insisted that there was nothing the US could do to level the international economic playing field, Trump responded by imposing serious tariffs upon China and other major US trading partners if they refused to negotiate fairly. Trump’s bold trading moves and negotiating tactics have begun to pay off. A new, fairer trade agreement with Mexico and Canada is replacing NAFTA, and Europe has taken the first steps toward resolving its longstanding trade issues with the US. Meanwhile, Trump has shown his resolve by imposing tariffs that are pressing China to enact reciprocity in its trade agreements for the first time. Trump is also insisting on an end to China’s brazen policy of rampant industrial theft and piracy.
- Energy Independence
In 2018, fracking revolution in American shale oil fields boosted US crude oil production to record levels, surpassing both Russia and Saudi Arabia. The added supply has provided price relief at the gasoline pump for consumers, while Trump’s policies are encouraging additional domestic energy production and export opportunities. These advances have been slowed by the entrenched liberal “green energy” special interest lobby, which is fighting in the courts to preserve expensive and unnecessary environmental regulations and expensive federal government subsidies for ethanol and smaller electric cars that most consumers don’t want or need. Meanwhile, working with private companies, President Trump is paving the way for a cheaper, safer, independent energy future for the United States, while at the same time sharply reducing US greenhouse gas emissions without adding costs to American industry.
- Fighting for Border Security
In the face of partisan grandstanding by liberal politicians and their allies in the mainstream media, President Trump is fighting to keep his promise to re-establish control over America’s southern border and prevent this country from being overrun by floods of illegal immigrants escaping poverty under the false guise of seeking asylum. Trump treated the thousands of unscreened migrants from caravans waiting for entry along the Mexican border as a challenge to American sovereignty and a threat to national security. He is demanding that Congress fund an effective border barrier to discourage illegal crossing, and pass long overdue reforms of immigration laws that have left federal authorities unable to encourage the kind of immigrants that America needs and helpless to safeguard the country against wholesale invasions by criminals and misfits. To prove that he is serious, Trump has carried out his promise to force a partial shutdown of the federal government unless Congress funds the border wall that is needed to start restoring law and order at the southern border.
Trump’s authority to impose an immigration ban on visitors to the US from terrorist-infested countries was ultimately upheld by the US Supreme Court. His more recent executive orders on immigration policy, including an order to end Obama’s DACA program which suspended the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to this country as young children, are still working their way through liberal court challenges, which have hampered their implementation so far.
Part of the problem with Trump’s immigration initiatives is that initially they were poorly implemented. Images of chaotic scenes of immigrants arriving at airports with canceled visas, and crying immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border, enabled Trump’s political opponents to work up public opposition to them, with help from the mainstream media. But the sharp grass-roots reaction against the wave of a million Middle East immigrants which inundated Europe four years ago demonstrates that the liberal Democrat solution of simply letting all the illegal immigrants into the US could ultimately destabilize the entire country.
- Defeating ISIS and Stabilizing the Region
The United States has been fighting wars against Islamic terrorists across the Middle East ever since the 9/11 attack in 2001. After 17 years without a clear victory, Trump has decided that the US cannot eliminate Islamic terrorism from the region with its military forces alone. At best, they can only contain the threat until the terrorists lose the support of the indigenous population. This is how President Trump used a small number of US troops and the might of US air power to help our military partners in the region sharply reduce and then contain the territory controlled by ISIS. At the same time, Trump has been careful to avoid entanglement in the end stage of the long and complex civil war in Syria, as well as potential confrontations with the forces of Russia, Iran and Turkey, all of which have more direct strategic interests in the outcome in Syria than the US has.
Trump has chosen to withdraw the 2,200 US troops now in Syria to avoid being caught between US two allies: Turkey, which is a well-armed member of the NATO alliance, and the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, which is small in numbers, but played a crucial role in helping to reduce the ISIS enclave. Forced to choose between the two, Trump had no choice. The partnership with the Kurds was never more than an alliance of convenience, while a major rift with Turkey would create serious strategic problem for the US and its other allies in Europe.
The political situation in Syria remains complex and unstable, and the US has never had enough troops there to make a significant difference in the ultimate outcome of the civil war. The small US force in Syria is being repositioned in neighboring Iraq, where the US has a much larger military presence. More US military forces are stationed elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region and across the Middle East, where they serve as a deterrent to Iran and a strike force against active terrorist targets of opportunity. But aside from those stationed in Afghanistan, these American troops are not regularly engaged in combat situations, and do not pose a serious drain on US military resources.
Syria remains a problem. It serves as a major ally and military staging area for Iran, giving it a land bridge all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Syria also provides the Russian Navy with its only warm water port. Otherwise, Syria has no direct strategic interest for the US. The Iranians and the Russians are clearly there to stay, and have been publicly invited to do so by President Assad. Therefore, for the time being, Trump has decided to pull back the small US force in Syria, whose mission of keeping the remnants of ISIS in check is largely complete. Trump will allow Israel to keep a close watch on developments inside Syria, which it has been doing anyway, while the US attends to challenges elsewhere.
- Implementing a New US Military Strategy
Trump’s withdrawal from Syria is contrary to standard US strategic doctrine since the end of World War II, which calls for the US to maintain military superiority everywhere in the world that serious trouble could emerge. It is not surprising that military commanders who have carried out that doctrine throughout their careers, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, disagreed with Trump’s decision. But by pulling out of Syria, Trump is acting consistently with his own military doctrine of limiting US military involvements abroad to essential strategic situations which he first announced during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Attempting to fight small wars since 9/11 on far flung battlefields brought the US military dangerously close to a state of exhaustion by the time Trump took office. With too few troops and ships to cover their worldwide commitments, and planes that were older than their pilots, the US military needed a lot more money to replace worn out equipment and build up its combat readiness in order to confront the new military challenges posed by potential enemies in the Western Pacific and Europe. The military preparedness of US allies in Europe was even more problematic. That was why one of President Trump’s first demands on NATO when he took office was to insist that each member begin to meet its treaty obligation to invest 2% of its GDP on maintaining its long-neglected defenses.
The sharp increase in Pentagon spending to $700 billion a year which Trump won from Democrats in 2017 and the slower increase in NATO spending is beginning to make a difference. Mattis’ effective leadership of the Pentagon has also resulted in significant improvements to both morale and military readiness. But Trump remains determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors who stretched the military too far. He is conserving the increased military might to respond to more serious challenges around the world.
- Health Care Issues
Trump’s most widely publicized policy failure of his first term was his inability to mobilize the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress to fulfill their own promises to repeal and replace Obamacare. That failure was really the fault of the Republican congressional leadership. They were unable to reach any consensus on how much of Obamacare would be repealed, while preserving its most popular features with voters, including guaranteed acceptance despite pre-existing medical conditions and extending family coverage for young adult children. The differences over the complex issues within the GOP proved to be too great to be bridged. One GOP bill to kill Obamacare eventually did pass the House, but in July 2017, that second attempt by GOP leaders with President Trump’s personal intervention still failed to attract enough votes to pass the Senate. It was killed by a dramatic thumbs down vote cast late at night by Senator John McCain, then fighting a diagnosis of brain cancer which would eventually take his life this past August.
Trump then gave up on repealing Obamacare and went on to tackle other issues. Obamacare survived, but members of Trump’s administration remained active in trying to offer the millions of Americans for whom Obamacare was too expensive other, more affordable options to secure health coverage. These included expanding the availability of temporary health insurance plans with reduced benefits, which were nearly 50 percent cheaper than unsubsidized Obamacare plans. The Trump administration also proposed expanding the ability of consumers to use the Health Reimbursement Accounts they receive from their employers to purchase health coverage to meet their needs. Finally, the 2017 Trump tax cut bill eliminated the fine that accompanied Obamacare’s individual mandate on everyone who refused to obtain health coverage, even if they didn’t want it or could not afford it.
The Trump administration also made efforts to pressure pharmaceutical companies to reduce soaring prescription drug prices, and to encourage the development of more generic equivalent drugs which sell at much lower prices than the brand name originals.
But the later Trump administration efforts to bring down other health care costs, eliminate the individual mandate fine and increase consumer choices around the edges of Obamacare, never received the intense media coverage that was focused on the failed early attempts by Trump and the GOP to do away with Obamacare. Because Republicans were never able to agree on what they intended to replace it with, many voters got the false impression that if the GOP had succeeded in repealing Obamacare, its favorite features, including coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, would disappear as well.
The Republican effort to repeal Obamacare was recognized by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer as a ready-made issue for the midterm election campaign, and they were quick to exploit it. It became a standard Democrat talking point in every House and Senate race. The failure by President Trump and Republican leaders to come up with an effective response to the Obamacare issue was a major factor in the Democrats’ success in the midterms, gaining 40 seats in the House and holding GOP gains in the Senate, where the Republicans held an initial advantage, to just two seats.
- A Failure to Govern
It is fair to say that Democrats never gave Trump a chance to govern the country. From the morning after Election Day, Democrats were challenging the legitimacy of his victory and agreeing on a strategy of resistance to his presidency. But it is also fair to say that Trump did not make much of an effort to reach out to the Democrats and seek their cooperation, even though as a president whose party held slim majorities in the House and Senate, it was easy to see that he would face great difficulty getting much legislation passed.
Trump realized early that he would become the first modern president not to enjoy a “honeymoon” period with Congress during the first months of his presidency, and then decided that he didn’t need one. He relied instead on his own powers of persuasion, his mastery of social media, and his ability to dominate every news cycle to go over the heads of Congress and force them to cooperate.
The results were predictable. Elected Democrats and the media rebelled. Trump’s defiance of the usual Washington political protocols and his provocative style quickly destroyed any desire on the other side for cooperation, and led to the total breakdown of the normal procedures of cooperation in American politics we are seeing today.
A BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATIONS
America’s proud tradition of respect for freedom of speech is no longer being honored in the breach. Since Trump took office, the partisan atmosphere in this country has been polarized to the point that conducting an honest, open political dialog between two dominant factions has become increasingly difficult. In some segments of American society which used to be known for their intellectual independence, such as on many college campuses and in mainstream media forums, the voices of the few remaining moderates is no longer tolerated. Those who wish to cross party lines to hold a serious public discussion on issues of common concern are finding fewer people willing to engage with them.
Moderate elected officials from both parties are rapidly becoming a politically endangered species. The concept of a candidate appealing to independent voters or trying to tempt some on the other side to cross party lines has become obsolete. Gerrymandering by leaders of both parties on the state level has reduced the number of truly competitive congressional districts to only a few dozen. Whole regions of the country are in the process of becoming either all red or all blue.
After November’s midterm election, there is not a single Republican congressman from all six New England states, and Susan Collins of Maine is the region’s last surviving GOP senator.
In California, Democrats took the governorship and every other statewide office, and 45 out of 53 House seats. Democrats dominate both houses of the state legislature by more than 2-to-1 majorities, which means that they can dictate any government policies they want. Even in the conservative bastion of Orange County, which served as the political base for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, not a single GOP congressman survive the midterm. The unapologetic socialist policies which Bernie Sanders ran on in 2016, such ideas as “Medicare for All,” universal free college education or a government guaranteed minimum income, are being widely adopted by virtually all of the young Democrat “rising stars” who are now aspiring for a 2020 presidential run.
In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, gaining the support of your party’s voter base depends upon being to be pro-Trump enough to satisfy grass-roots Republican activists, or anti-Trump enough to satisfy the progressive/socialist activists who have taken over the Democrat party.