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The President Should Break Established Norms, But Only Bad Ones

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Charles Kesler, a friend from college, defends Trump’s breaking presidential norms by saying that democracy makes progress when long lasting, but suboptimal norms are broken so long as they are not hard-wired into the Constitution. I agree in principle, but do not believe that this President’s norm-breaking has been beneficial on balance. He has broken some norms that are essential to democracy—like treating opponents with respect. Civility to opponents is particularly important because democracy is a fragile thing that rests on the ability to compromise even with people with whom one fundamentally disagrees. Moreover, breaking good norms, particularly those around civility, has deprived him of the political capital to end some entrenched Washington insider norms that would be vulnerable to an outsider like Trump.

Let me stipulate that sometimes President Trump has beneficially changed our norms. Perhaps the best new norm on offer is announcing before the election and adding to it afterwards a list of Supreme Court nominees from whom he will choose. That list creates transparency and greater discussion about justices who will interpret our fundamental law. That he makes this list in consultation with experts that he trusts is also to be applauded. Most Presidents know relatively little about constitutional law, let alone constitutional theory. Who would help them fill out their basic intuitions by choosing talented justices other than experts who are in general agreement with them?

But who can doubt either that the President’s intemperance on Twitter and failure to treat opponents civilly is alienating many independents who are necessary to maintain a winning political coalition? And his failure to fire officials with whom he publicly disagrees makes him seems a bystander to his own administration, a kind of Twitterer-in-Chief, something that is not a good norm to create.

Here are four insider norms that President Trump should seek to break. These actions would advance his  outsider agenda and would be vote winners or at least vote-neutral.

  1. Break up the Washington bureaucracy. Move departments to the vast land outside the beltway. There is no reason that most departments in this age of instant communication need to be in D.C. Put the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Indianapolis, Commerce in Phoenix and so on. It is a real problem that most bureaucrats have views that are to the left of median Democrat. Part of that ideological slant comes from geography and another part group-think. Dispersing government across the nation would help create more ideological and cultural balance.
  2. Rein in the Independent Agencies. Put independent agencies under the cost-benefit analysis executive order. Fire some independent agency heads who are out of step with the President’s policies.  This exercise of  political control would create more accountability in government.
  3. Put political appointees on a budget. Require all cabinet officials who want to spend more than $1,000 on refurbishing their office to get approval of the White House and do not give such approval unless their office cannot be made otherwise to work.  If the President were to sign this order even now with a flourish, his popularity would tick up.
  4. Cut tax withholding.  Withhold only 3/4  what is estimated to be due in taxes and move the payment date right before the election. Making taxes somewhat more painful will restrain government by harnessing taxpayer outrage.
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