The risk of be­ing tweeter in chief

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Jonah Gold­berg The Na­tional Re­view

The po­lit­i­cal class is still com­ing to grips with what ap­pears to be Don­ald Trump’s novel man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy: Govern­ment by Twit­ter. Put aside the by-now-fa­mil­iar weird­ness of our pres­i­dent-elect’s gloat­ing over Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s poor “Celebrity Ap­pren­tice” rat­ings or swipes at Meryl Streep. Trump’s Twit­ter ad­dic­tion poses hereto­fore un­no­ticed chal­lenges for his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The pres­i­dent-elect of­ten em­pha­sizes the value of be­ing “un­pre­dictable.” And he has a point — in cer­tain con­texts. Keep­ing our en­e­mies guess­ing has ad­van­tages. De­fend­ers of Trump’s habit of jab­bing cor­po­ra­tions about their off­shoring de­ci­sions will tell you that Trump is “set­ting the tone from the top.” Since such de­ci­sions are of­ten made with a nar­row and sub­jec­tive cost-ben­e­fit calculus, the ar­gu­ment goes, us­ing tweets to en­cour­age ex­ec­u­tives to err on the side of “Amer­ica first” is a valu­able way to change the busi­ness cul­ture.

Whether or not you like Trump’s eco­nomic rea­son­ing, you can see why he likes keep­ing CEOs afraid of the crack of his Twit­ter whip.

But what about his own ap­pointees and al­lies in Congress?

When I’ve talked to vet­er­ans of the Ron­ald Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, par­tic­u­larly from the speech­writ­ing or pol­icy shops, I’ve of­ten heard a com­mon ob­ser­va­tion: Know­ing what the boss be­lieved was both em­pow­er­ing and ef­fi­cient; if you know a pol­icy or a line in a speech will never fly with the pres­i­dent, you won’t bother pur­su­ing it.

Peter Robin­son, the ac­claimed speech­writer, has writ­ten at length about how know­ing Rea­gan’s vi­sion made his job eas­ier. Robin­son could write “Mr. Gor­bachev, tear down this wall!” be­cause he knew it was what Rea­gan wanted to have hap­pen.

“Ron­ald Rea­gan’s writ­ers were never at­tempt­ing to fab­ri­cate an im­age, just to pro­duce work that mea­sured up to the stan­dard Rea­gan him­self had al­ready es­tab­lished,” Robin­son would later write. “His poli­cies were plain. He had been ar­tic­u­lat­ing them for decades.”

The vast lit­er­a­ture on lead­er­ship and man­age­ment ham­mers away on this point: Pro­vide a vi­sion and then let the troops do the hard work. Jack Welch, the leg­endary for­mer CEO of Gen­eral Elec­tric, put it this way: “In or­der to lead a coun­try or a com­pany, you’ve got to get ev­ery­body on the same page, and you’ve got to be able to have a vi­sion of where you’re go­ing.” Bri­tish Field Mar­shal Bernard “Monty” Mont­gomery said his def­i­ni­tion of lead­er­ship is: “the ca­pac­ity and the will to rally men and women to a com­mon pur­pose and the char­ac­ter which in­spires con­fi­dence.”

Ex­cept for trade pol­icy, there are few ar­eas where Trump’s troops have a clear idea of what the boss wants, and his com­pul­sive tweet­ing adds a layer of un­pre­dictabil­ity. I’ve talked to a half-dozen com­mit­ted and prin­ci­pled con­ser­va­tives con­sid­er­ing jobs in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, and I heard one re­cur­ring con­cern: “Will Trump have my back?”

The point isn’t about per­sonal loyalty, but re­solve in the face of the in­evitable po­lit­i­cal and me­dia back­lashes that will come with any se­ri­ous re­form ef­fort.

Con­sider two re­cent in­ci­dents. The House GOP cau­cus voted to sharply curb the power of the Of­fice of Con­gres­sional Ethics. Con­trary to some op­por­tunis­tic state­ments by House Mi­nor­ity leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., there’s bipartisan con­sen­sus that the OCE is a hot mess. House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, R-Va., led an ef­fort to scrap it, know­ing that the GOP would take a po­lit­i­cal hit for do­ing so. When the pre­dictable firestorm hit, Trump hied to Twit­ter to mock the ef­fort as a dis­trac­tion, earn­ing a nanosec­ond of fa­vor­able cov­er­age by killing the ini­tia­tive.

A more cru­cial ex­am­ple is the ef­fort to re­peal Oba­macare. Trump is­sued a se­ries of Twit­ter fat­was last week, say­ing Congress shouldn’t do any­thing that lets Democrats off the hook for the prob­lems of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Po­lit­i­cally, I think Trump is right to be con­cerned about the per­ils of re­peal­ing Oba­macare with­out hav­ing a re­place­ment ready. But his glib re­sponse elic­its fear among some con­ser­va­tives that he won’t stand fast on re­peal­ing Oba­macare, or much else. There are count­less ar­eas — en­ti­tle­ments, civil rights, im­mi­gra­tion, etc. — where se­ri­ous con­ser­va­tive re­forms will spark con­tro­versy, hor­ri­ble head­lines and neg­a­tive cov­er­age on “the shows” the pres­i­den­t­elect watches ob­ses­sively. Will Trump im­petu­ously use Twit­ter to tri­an­gu­late against his own troops?

Right now, Trump’s de­fend­ers wave off such con­cerns, say­ing he’s us­ing Twit­ter to com­mu­ni­cate a clear vi­sion to his team and the whole coun­try. Time will tell. To me, that seems like a gen­er­ous read­ing be­tween the lines — or be­tween tweets about Meryl Streep.

Jonah Gold­berg is syn­di­cated by Tri­bune Me­dia Ser­vices.

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