Some of us, having observed the “swamp” called Washington at first-hand, may find it hard not to take an unseemly satisfaction as the Trump crowd stumbles its quarrelsome way to office.
It has long been a popular superstition that the problems of American government could easily be fixed if only a businessman were president. What a shame that Washington, Jefferson and Madison and their successors often were land-poor country squires and not CEOs or the geniuses who gave us bundled mortgages! A companion view is that the persistent budget imbalances are caused by “fraud, waste and abuse” rather than undertaxation, entitlements and defense spending and would yield to the magic wand of a casino mogul.
Those who entertain these beliefs will soon witness a fair test. Donald Trump is that long-anticipated messiah, a man of business, albeit one who has experienced several bankruptcies. His transition team is obviously having some difficulty getting organized to drain the Washington swamp, but Trump has assured us that the difficulty is a figment in the mind of the “failing New York Times.”
If Trump were a closer observer, he might be aware of a precedent – the ultra-self-confident advent in 1977 of Jimmy Carter of Plains, GA., a novice from a place almost as provincial as New York City. Carter, too, was advertised as a messianic outsider and swamp engineer. There was, in fact, a swamp recently drained – Watergate. Carter boasted a fiscal theory of his own devising, known as “zero-based budgeting.” He claimed that it had worked in Georgia and would eliminate the perennial deficits. Meanwhile, the capital fixers and insiders would be replaced by straight arrows from the hinterlands. One of his team even said, “If you ever see us relying on Clark Clifford, you’ll know we have failed.”
Clifford was symbolic. He was the ultimate Washington fixer, a tall, pleasant, slow-talking (though not slow-thinking) Missourian who since Harry Truman’s time had advised and served Democratic presidents, recently as Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense. His powerful article in Foreign Affairs had been influential in shifting US policy in Vietnam. He was obviously bad medicine. But. in no time, one of the new Carter kingpins, Bert Lance, ran into trouble with the comptroller of the currency – he was said to have operated a family bank in the Georgia hills “like his personal piggy bank.” And who should appear as his lawyer before the usual congressional inquisitions but...Clark Clifford!
It is hard to say how much Donald Trump knows about Washington customs and institutions. But Trump’s Washington will be exceptional if a spectacular spill, and probably more than one, doesn’t come along as nemesis to punish hubris. Carter had been sharply critical of Gerald Ford’s alleged mismanagement of the capture of an American naval vessel. His nemesis proved to be the Iran hostage crisis. Carter’s foreign policy accomplishments were considerable, including ratification of the Panama treaty and peacemaking between Egypt and Israel. But in domestic affairs, the vaunted “zero-based budgeting” offered no shelter from runaway inflation requiring drastic deflationary measures that, with the hostage crisis, probably cost him re-election. As, in fact, the early call on Clifford’s expert counsel was a rebuke to Carter’s confidence in the virtues of inexperience.
Where, then, will the pratfalls for Donald Trump lie? The only certainty now is that spills will occur, and they will be characteristic and self-invited. We must hope that they don’t include another 2008-like crash of markets pumped up by rash deregulation, or a dangerous overseas crisis precipitated by his reckless friend Vladimir Putin.
Trump will be – he already is – what the late David Broder of the Washington Post used to call (and did presciently call Jimmy Carter) a “high risk president.” And his risks will be ours as well.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.