Monday, May 16, 2016

The possibility of a "successful" Trump presidency

As readers may notice (hi, me!), I don't have a lot (read: "any") respect for Donald Trump.  But, I'm also not particularly afraid of him.  I see him mostly as a potential Carter, whose general ineptitude would prevent him from accomplishing much, leaving him largely at the mercy of outside factors.

Carter is remembered as a failed president, but only part of his legacy is the result of his own doing (or lack thereof).  True, he failed to work with Congress, controlled by his own party, in order to enact any significant legislative agenda.  However, the historically unusual combination of high unemployment and high inflation was not his doing.  The doings of OPEC, the 1979 revolution in Iran, the hostages...  None of this was Carter's fault.

Contrast that with the legacy of Bill Clinton.  Clinton, in contrast, is remembered as a relatively successful president.  Legislatively, though, he was a total failure.  His first two years in office, he had a Democratic House and Senate, which passed his 1993 budget, and not much else.  Can we call that an accomplishment?  Sure, but healthcare reform?  Not so much.  His primary legislative legacy is the 1996 welfare reform bill, which was primarily a Republican bill that Clinton supported as a DLC Democrat, alienating liberals.

So why is Clinton remembered as a "successful" president?  He got lucky.  So to speak.  With timing.  Yes, I meant timing.  He spent eight years in the White House after the fall of communism, but before the rise of al Qaeda.  The 1990's economy was more connected to the tech boom than anything Clinton did.  So, he enjoyed a period of economic prosperity that occurred for reasons outside his control, and a brief window of peace due also to external forces.  Francis Fukuyama was wrong about how the fall of the Soviet Union meant "the end of history," but Clinton got to bask in the illusion.

And then, of course, he was impeached, and the backlash against congressional Republicans just burnished Clinton's image even more.

So, Bill Clinton got lucky, whereas Jimmy Carter merely had lust in his heart.  (Google it, kids).

What does any of this mean for Trump?  Mainly, it means whether or not he would be "successful" (note the continued use of quotation marks) depends largely on luck.  Geopolitics and macroeconomic trends are largely outside the direct control of the president.  Can a particularly stupid president blow the world up anyway?  We make jokes about Trump deciding to nuke Portugal because the Prime Minister joked about Trump's hand size, but realistically, it doesn't quite work that way.

So here's what would have to happen for Trump to get lucky and become a "successful" president.  Obviously, timing.  No major terrorist attacks on US soil, no major attacks on US allies.  Economic growth, particularly towards the end of the term.  A Vice President with a brain, capable of handling the administrative tasks that Trump can't.  Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell not doing anything grotesquely stupid, like breaching the debt ceiling.

Think of it in stock portfolio terms.  The long-term trend in the stock market is up.  Put your money in a passively managed S&P index fund, and you will get around 8 to 10% per year, on average.  "Active managers," who buy and sell individual stocks in order to try to beat the market usually underperform the market.  But, because the long-term trend is up, most will get positive returns anyway.  And in a good year, even an under-performing fund manager can beat 10%.

Trump is an idiot.  But we also have a weak presidency system, and the important stuff is largely out of the president's direct control.  Could Trump be a disaster?  Certainly.  Is he astonishingly stupid?  Yup.  But that doesn't mean he couldn't, like Bill, get lucky.

Trump could win the presidency.  And it might not be a total disaster.

When did I become an optimist?